Pubdate: Sun, 21 Oct 2007 Source: Daily News Tribune (Waltham, MA) Copyright: 2007 The Daily News Tribune Contact: http://www.dailynewstribune.com Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/3562 Author: David W. White Jr., Guest columnist Note: David W. White Jr. is president of the Massachusetts Bar Association and is principal in the firm of Breakstone, White & Gluck PC in Boston. Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/find?199 (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing) Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/rehab.htm (Treatment) Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/youth.htm (Youth) RETHINK CRIMINAL SENTENCING Since long before Richard Nixon coined the phrase "War on Drugs," our country experienced a sharp increase in the penalties associated with illegal drug possession, distribution and trafficking. In Massachusetts, as in many other states, more than one dozen minimum mandatory sentences were added to the law books. The demand for "truth in sentencing" was answered by a series of laws enhancing or restricting parole eligibility in 1980s and 1990s; but in the political shuffle, sentencing guidelines were unfortunately left on the sidelines. Tabling these critical guidelines has resulted in cumulative negative effects. Specifically, prison populations have more than quadrupled since 1990, now totaling more than 11,000, compared to approximately 2,500 in 1990. All of the Massachusetts prisons and jail facilities are overcrowded. The costs of the corrections systems is approaching $1 billion annually - a total that excludes the costs to victims, the costs of prosecutions and appeals, and the costs to run the courts. Are we getting much bang for our buck? The answer is a resounding "no." Crimes of possession have not been reduced by the threat of longer sentences. Without effective parole, an increasing number of prisoners are being released from medium and maximum security prisons to the street, unsupervised, uneducated, and untrained. Recidivism rates are now more than 50 percent in the three years following prisoner release. The failure of the corrections system to reduce recidivism is a guarantee that there will be a continuing stream of victims. The failures in the corrections system can, in large part, be traced to a few misguided policies. First, education and training programs do not meet the needs of prisoners. Most inmates lack a high school diploma, have substance abuse problems, and have few, if any, job skills. Yet education, training, and treatment programs have been slashed. The prison budget for such programs is roughly three percent of the entire prison budget. As a result, General Education Development (GED) diploma completion rates are down and waiting lists for the few existing treatment programs continue to grow. The concept of rehabilitation in our state prisons has all but been abandoned, which presents more opportunities for the negative effects of idle prisoners to build, heightening the threat to other prisoners and prison guards alike. Second, sentencing changes have diminished meaningful parole. Mandatory minimum sentences prevent inmates from having any parole, and from entering training opportunities or re-integration programs. Other sentences, with only slight differences between the minimum and the maximum (for example, a sentence of 10 years to 10 years and one day), diminish or eliminate any opportunity for parole. Mandatory minimums should be revisited to create sentences that preserve parole as a means for a successful transition from prison back to society. The poster child for the need for mandatory minimum sentencing reform is the school zone offense, which mandates a two-year sentence for the sale of even the smallest quantity of drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, or in the proximity of a church, park, or day care center. Of course, everybody agrees that selling drugs to students or children must be prevented and offenders should face appropriate punishment, but the vast majority of convictions for school zone offenses are unrelated to schools or the students who attend them. The simple fact is, in urban areas, almost all of the city can be considered a school zone. The law therefore has a disparate impact on urban areas and on minorities, when compared to areas outside of city limits. If someone sells drugs in Lynn, he or she goes to jail, while the same offense in the suburbs will result in a light probationary sentence. Now is the time to advocate for meaningful reform, especially given the legislature's current appetite for change. Senate President Therese Murray, House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, and Governor Deval Patrick have all expressed interest in reforming school zone and other mandatory sentences. Potential legislative action this fall would be welcome by many. However, such action will be incomplete if we fail to restore meaningful programs to the prisons, including education, treatment for addiction and mental illness and job training. To ensure a more harmonious transition from the cell block to society, we need to expand and improve our existing parole system. Meaningful reforms will guarantee improvements to only better society. These include reducing crime, restoring families and communities, and cost savings to taxpayers. The citizens of this commonwealth deserve nothing less. ----------------------- David W. White Jr. is president of the Massachusetts Bar Association and is principal in the firm of Breakstone, White & Gluck PC in Boston. He is one of the featured speakers at a sentencing symposium to be held on Oct. 23 at 10 a.m. at the Massachusetts Statehouse.