Sentencing reform gains steam

Advocates packed the State House recently to back legislation to reduce the length of prison sentences for a host of drug-related offenses. State Senator Mike Barrett, D-Lexington, supports the reforms, calling excessive prison terms a “huge drain of taxpayer dollars” with “no added deterrent effect” on those eventually released.

Massachusetts spends more than $46,000 per year to imprison each non-violent offender, many of whom have mental health and substance abuse problems. Oftentimes, Barrett says, they should instead be in treatment clinics where they can get help, an alternative that is not only more effective but costs less money.

The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee heard public input in favor of the bills from supporters such as Supreme Judicial Court Chief Ralph Gants. Specifically, Gants spoke out against so-called “mandatory minimum” statutes.

Mandatory minimums — laws that preset jail time for certain types of offenses — tie the hands of judges who then cannot use their discretion, advocates say. They add that the laws have a disproportionate impact on blacks and Latinos.

“Our criminal justice system stacks the deck against the poor and against communities of color,” Barrett wrote in a letter to the Committee. People of color make up 20% of the state’s population, but make up 77% of drug offenders sentenced to mandatory minimums.

Repealing certain mandatory minimums has widespread support. A recent poll found that only 11% of state residents favor such statutes. More than 20 states have already taken steps towards reform.

Barrett directed praise at his colleague, Sen. Ken Donnelly, D-Arlington, for filing a related bill to reform the pretrial process.