MBA testifies on eliminating harsh drug sentencing laws

Thursday, Jun. 11, 2015
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Photo Credit: Lee Constantine
MBA President-elect Robert W. Harnais (right) testifies as part of the FAMM panel before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary.

The Massachusetts Bar Association testified before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary in support of legislation that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes at a lengthy State House hearing in Gardner Auditorium on June 9.

MBA President-elect Robert W. Harnais delivered his testimony as part of a panel with Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a national nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works to ensure that punishment fits the crime. Harnais was joined on the panel by Bonnie DiToro, who was sentenced to a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for being in the next room during a drug deal; Joanne Peterson, executive director of Learn to Cope; and Rahsaan Hall, former Suffolk County prosecutor and deputy director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.

Both the MBA and FAMM support two bills that seek to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses: S.786, sponsored by Senator Cynthia Creen (D-Newton), and H.1620, sponsored by Representative Benjamin Swan (D-Springfield).

"Especially today, when the commonwealth is grappling with a terrible drug epidemic, mandatory minimums are not only part of the problem, they are getting in the way of the solution," said Harnais. "By removing any discretion for meaningful rehabilitation or treatment, mandatory minimums contribute to the high recidivism rates found in many drug offenses, effectively sentencing addicts to 'life' on the installment plan."

Barbara J. Dougan, director of FAMM's Massachusetts project, added: "We call upon legislators to join the nationwide movement for more fair, effective and fiscally responsible drug sentencing laws."

The hearing included testimony from Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, a panel of the state's district attorneys, and numerous legislators and community groups. Gants led off the hearing with detailed testimony that described three main areas why abolishing mandatory minimum sentences makes sense: racial justice, justice reinvestment and fairness in sentencing.

The MBA appointed a Drug Policy Task Force in 2008, which found that drug policies in Massachusetts have failed at every level under a system in dire need of repair. Money is wasted, crime is not effectively prevented or reduced, and families are often torn apart.

During the last 15 years, more than 20 states have reformed or repealed their mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses, efforts that have been supported across the political spectrum.

"A number of other states have gone through this and we should not be leaving opportunities on the table," said Senate President Stanley Rosenberg (D-Amherst), who testified in support of the legislation. "If the red states can do it, we can do it."

The MBA will continue to aggressively pursue passage of this legislation during this session.