Massachusetts Legal Developments Blog


In the early 1980s, the Massachusetts legislature passed the commonwealth’s first mandatory minimum laws for drug offenses. These laws took discretion out of the hands of prosecutors and judges and created fixed sentences based on the specifics of the crime committed. The length of the sentence is usually based primarily on the weight of the drugs with which the defendant was caught. The mandatory minimum laws were a response to a perceived increase in drug abuse in Massachusetts, and also a belief that other types of crime (including violent crime) tended to follow drug crime.

Over the past 30 years or so, mandatory minimum laws for drug offenses have become increasingly controversial, both in Massachusetts and around the country. Low-level drug offenders have wasted away in prison, while the overall rates of drug addiction and drug crime have either risen or stayed the same. The legislature has gradually reformed the drug sentencing laws to make them somewhat less harsh. Most recently, on August 2, 2012, the governor signed the 2012 Massachusetts Drug Sentencing Reform Law, which reduced the mandatory minimum sentences that courts must impose on drug offenders.

The 2012 law covers a series of drug distribution and trafficking offenses, and lowers the minimum sentence that a judge must impose on someone convicted of these crimes. The Massachusetts Controlled Substances Act divides illicit drugs into five classes: Class A (including heroin, morphine, codeine, and ketamine), Class B (cocaine, crack, amphetamines, methadone, LSD, and PCP), Class C (peyote and mescaline), Class D (marijuana), and Class E (non-narcotic prescription drugs).

The reform law shortened mandatory sentences for drug offenses by up to one-third. For example, the minimum sentence for someone convicted of a second time of distribution of a Class A substance is now 3½ years instead of five years. The minimum sentence for trafficking 100 to 2,000 pounds of marijuana was reduced from three years to two years. And the mandatory minimum for trafficking 100 to 200 grams of certain Class B substances was changed from 10 years to eight years.

In addition, the law significantly reduces the minimum fines that the court must impose. While the changes only apply to those who are convicted after August 2, 2012, the reforms will also have an impact on drug offenders who were already in prison when the new law was signed. Convicted drug offenders are now eligible for earlier parole, work release, and earned good time. While the 2012 law and some of the other previous reforms are steps in the right direction, the ultimate goal of sentencing reform advocates is to eliminate mandatory minimums altogether. This would restore judges’ discretion to determine sentences in each specific case, and would bring back some basic fairness to the justice system.

If you have been charged with violating Massachusetts drug laws, or have been given an excessive mandatory minimum sentence, you should immediately seek out the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Contact Edward R. Molari, Attorney at Law, today for a confidential consultation.

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