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Massachusetts Study Critical of Mandatory Minimum Sentencing: Black, Hispanic, Poor Defendants More Likely To Go To Prison


January 1998

In Massachusetts, half of the drug offenders given long mandatory sentences are nonviolent, according to a study of anti-drug law enforcement by William N. Brownsberger, J.D., a prosecutor and Research Fellow in Drug Policy at Harvard Medical School. The study recommends alternative sanctions such as intensive probation and treatment-oriented drug courts for nonviolent offenders rather than prison sentences (William N. Brownsberger, "Profile of Anti-Drug Law Enforcement in Urban Poverty Areas of Massachusetts," November 1997; Zachary R. Dowdy, "Study Queries Mandatory Sentences," Boston Globe, November 25, 1997; Carey Goldberg, "Prison Study Casts Doubt on Sentencing," New York Times, November 25, 1997, p. A14).

"Mandatory sentencing laws are wasting prison resources on nonviolent, low-level offenders and reducing resources available to lock up violent offenders," said Brownsberger. The study provides data showing that two-thirds of all men sentenced to state prison from July 1, 1994 to June 30, 1996 under mandatory drug sentencing laws did not have a prior conviction for a violent offense. About 20% of Massachusetts state prisoners are serving terms for drug dealing.

The study recommends that policy makers reconsider whether public-safety concerns outweigh the high costs to taxpayers and the disproportionate impact that mandatory sentences have on minority drug offenders. Blacks and Latinos account for 85% of drug-related sentences. The black and Hispanic state prison admission rates for drug offenses are 39 and 81 times higher than the white rate, respectively.

According to the study, a person who lives in a neighborhood designated by the federal government as an "extreme poverty" area, is 19 times more likely to be incarcerated for a drug offense than someone who lives in a non-poverty area. The study shows that in poverty areas, 1 in 6 adult minority men will experience state prison incarceration before the age of 40.

Chief Justice Robert Mulligan, who chairs the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, said the study makes a strong case for adoption of flexible sentencing guidelines. The commission was formed by the state legislature to review sentencing policy. Such flexible guidelines were proposed by the commission last spring and may be implemented early this year, Mulligan said. "I was shocked at how this study documents the impact these laws are having on minority communities," Mulligan said. He added that he regrets the impact mandatory sentences have had on nonviolent, low-level offenders. `'The impact there has been devastating," he said.

The 100-page study was released on November 24. Preparation of the report was assisted by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Substance Abuse Policy Research Program.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Substance Abuse Policy Research Program - Joe Marx or Ann Searight - (609) 243-5937.

William N. Brownsberger, Assistant Attorney General, One Ashburton Place, Boston, MA 02108, E-Mail: