Our Opinion: Governor's reversal on mandatory minimum sentencing disheartening

Politicians flip-flop. It goes with the turf, like kissing babies and eating rubber chicken lunches. Flip-flops can be charitably characterized as a "change of heart," when the reasons are legitimate, but when they arise out of political expediency — particularly if the public good is not served — the politician responsible ought to be called to task.

Last week, Governor Charlie Baker proposed a new bill to slap drug dealers of lethal drugs with mandatory prison sentences, specifically a five-year minimum for dealing drugs resulting in a death. Such a crime would fall under the category of manslaughter, putting it on a par with a death caused by a DUI driver.

On the face of it, the proposal has a nice campaign ring for a governor who faces re-election next year, particularly in the context of the opioid epidemic now eroding every stratum of our society. No one would argue that Massachusetts' drug problem is critical and needs to be seriously confronted by every legitimate means possible, but imposing mandatory sentences for certain crimes is a one-size-fits-all approach that is, in most cases, unhelpful. First, it strips the state's judges of any discretionary sentencing power and puts it in the hands of district attorneys, who are the ones to decide what crime an individual will be charged with and whether to even bring it to trial. Judges in the Bay State are appointed by the governor, and he and his advisors use criteria such as experience, temperament, wisdom, and understanding of nuance on a case-by-case basis when choosing them. Judges, in other words, are charged with striking the delicate balance between mercy and order. In the case of a drug-dealer whose acts resulted in a death, a judge is not about to let such a person off lightly. However, if there are mitigating circumstances — for example, the selling of a prescription drug to buy medication for a sick family member — the judge's hands are tied by the guideline.

This is not to say that mandatory minimum sentences do not occasionally serve a deterrent purpose. Heavy penalties associated with drunk driving exist to discourage tipsy drivers from getting behind the wheel; they know beforehand that there will be consequences. Drug dealers, on the other hand, are not likely to be thinking about deterrence when they are selling; often they are doing so to support their own habits, and the world that they inhabit knows no reason or judgment other than how to get that next fix.

Another unattractive quality of mandatory minimum sentences is that once they are on the books, they are almost impossible to remove. No politician is going to risk appearing soft on crime by suggesting that a mandatory sentence for a crime should be eliminated. Draconian anti-drug laws enacted in the 1970s, for example, ruined thousands of lives by incarcerating individuals for minor marijuana crimes, and such laws took decades to be stricken.

When Governor Baker was a candidate in 2014, he answered "no" on a questionnaire when asked if he supported additional mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses, and "yes" when asked if he felt they should be repealed. Now he acknowledges that he has reversed his stand. Was it a flip-flop or a change of heart?


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