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Our criminal justice system is fundamentally broken--and fixing it will require a broad array of significant reforms, not small adjustments. I'm writing to ask you to work for smart, comprehensive criminal justice reforms, and to prioritize repeal of mandatory minimum drug sentences as an urgent first step.
Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses take sentencing power from impartial judges and give it to prosecutors. Judges are forced to either impose lengthy sentences on people convicted of certain drug offenses or accept pleas leveraged with the threat of a mandatory minimum sentence. Despite the fact that people of color and white people use and distribute drugs at comparable rates, and Blacks and Latinos make up less than 25% of the Commonwealth's population, they represent 75% of individuals serving mandatory minimum drug sentences.
Some people defend the status quo by citing Massachusetts's low incarceration rate relative to other states. However, if Massachusetts were a nation it would have the 10th highest incarceration rate in the world. Moreover, the racial disparities throughout our criminal justice system are significantly--disturbingly--higher than the national average.
No single policy change will fix our broken criminal justice system. Comprehensive improvements to reduce system involvement, eliminate racial disparities, address addiction and mental health, and strengthen individuals and communities require us to make comprehensive changes. Among other reforms, we must:
- examine racial disparities throughout the system, from police encounters through prosecution, sentencing and supervision;
- divert people from criminal prosecution, especially people who need treatment for drug addiction or mental illness;
- help young people in need of age-appropriate responses and second chances;
- keep more people out of jail and connected to work and family while they await trial;
- stop locking up people for technical violations of their supervision or for simply being too poor to pay court fees or fines; and
- establish a presumption in favor of parole to encourage rehabilitation and preparation for returning to the community.
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Too many people are entangled in our criminal justice system, and often for reasons related to addiction, mental illness, racial inequity or poverty. It has become a cliché that we cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of these problems. It's time for policymakers to act on that basic insight.
We must begin by repealing unjust mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses. The costs of the failed drug war, both human and financial, are way too high. Please support comprehensive criminal justice reform and urge legislative leaders to prioritize the swift repeal of mandatory minimum drug sentences.