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Common sense on sentencing

THE ROUGHLY $45,000 spent to lock up a prisoner in Massachusetts for a year is money well spent when it provides social defense against violent offenders who destroy families and destabilize neighborhoods. But such an expense starts to look suspect in cases involving nonviolent drug offenders, especially when recidivism rates are running so high among prisoners who receive inadequate vocational or educational training.

The Massachusetts Bar Association hopes to call attention to such ineffective or unjust sentencing today at a State House symposium. David White, president of the bar association, is urging lawmakers to revise the state's mandatory minimum sentences, especially for drug crimes. Of special concern is the ill-conceived law that mandates a two-year sentence for anyone convicted of drug distribution near a school or park. The effects of such laws fall disproportionately on minorities living in cities, where school zones and public parks are so numerous as to encompass almost every place.

The symposium offers a welcome opportunity to reconsider the effects of such blunt laws. But it still feels like the state is revisiting an old controversy that ought to have been resolved by now. In the mid-1990s, a commission of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys spent two years of research and debate creating a balanced set of sentencing guidelines. In what appeared to be a sensible compromise, the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission stiffened sentences for violent crimes but gave judges leeway to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in nonviolent drug cases. Alternative sanctions, such as electronic bracelet monitoring, could replace prison time for minor offenses. But the Legislature never gave the sentencing reform bill serious consideration.

Today's symposium could suffer from the fact that no district attorney will be on the panel. A vigorous debate on sentencing reform is impossible without the DAs, who are among the state's fiercest protectors of mandatory minimum drug sentences. Still, there are signs of flexibility even among hard-line prosecutors. Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, for example, says he can't imagine fellow DAs agreeing to the elimination of mandatory drug sentences. But O'Keefe could envision changes to the controversial law on school zones. This would be a good place to start. About one third of the roughly 1,000 people who received mandatory drug sentences in 2006 fell under the sloppy school zone policy that provides little or no actual protection to students.

The state's district attorneys association and bar association worked well together recently to update the state's drunk driving laws. They should do the same to bring Massachusetts drug laws into the modern era.

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