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Sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenders debated

By Matt Murphy
State House News Service / September 21, 2011

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While the Patrick administration renewed its push yesterday to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, the state’s district attorneys warned against walking away from sentencing guidelines that provide consistency and a vital tool for prosecutors to resolve cases.

Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan called on lawmakers to pass a suite of ideas proposed by Governor Deval Patrick over the past eight months aimed at reducing prison overcrowding by eliminating mandatory minimums for minor drug offenses and offering those offenders a chance at early parole.

The governor has also filed bills mandating post-release supervision for all state inmates, creating new gun crimes, toughening parole eligibility standards for repeat, violent offenders and shrinking school zones where sentences for drug crimes are amplified.

Heffernan called the “toxic combination of drugs and guns’’ the most dangerous threat to public safety, stressing that the governor’s bill would retain mandatory minimums for drug offenders who use, carry, or possess a firearm during of a drug crime.

The secretary said the governor has also not given up on his desire to merge probation and parole functions under one executive branch department - a proposal rejected by the Legislature in a recently passed court reorganization law.

The governor has not been alone this session in pushing for sentencing reform. Lawmakers, public safety officials and advocates crammed into a hot hearing room yesterday to offer testimony on a range of bills before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. Bristol County District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter testified on behalf of all 11 district attorneys, urging lawmakers not to return to the 1980s when the lack of mandatory minimums led to a clamoring from the public to standardize sentencing.

The district attorneys rebutted the claims of proponents who argue that prisons are overcrowded with non-violent inmates serving unduly harsh penalties, citing statistics from December 2010 showing that 16 percent of the state’s 10,236 prisoners were serving minimum mandatory drug sentences, many pleaded down from more serious crimes.

“I have said this to the prosecutors that work for my office, and I have said it to the public at-large, and I say it to all of you now: drugs and guns are a toxic combination that carry a huge potential for lethal consequences,’’ Sutter said.

While law enforcement officials cautioned against giving judicial discretion in drug case sentencing, advocates and former inmates told lawmakers that mandatory minimums have not reduced drug offenses or abuse. Instead, supporters said drug offenders often spend more time in prison than violent criminals serving time for a first offense.

“We treat low-level drug offenders and addicts the same as drug kingpins, sometimes even worse,’’ said Barbara Duggan, project director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

While neither the House or Senate has set a timetable to address sentencing reform this session, House Chairman Representative Eugene O’Flaherty said he looked forward to engaging with the county prosecutors in the future about their idea.