Are the Days of Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Crimes Nearly Over?

On Tuesday the state’s Supreme Judicial Court will hear an appeal by the Middlesex District Attorney’s office challenging a trial judge’s decision to depart from the mandatory minimum sentence set by statute for a drug crime and to impose a shorter sentence instead.

The District Attorney, citing the SJC’s decision in a 1995 case, argues that where a statute imposes a mandatory minimum sentence, judges have absolutely no discretion to lower that sentence, and therefore the trial judge in this case improperly reduced the sentence imposed on the defendant, Imran Laltaprasad, from 3 1/2 years to 2 1/2 years. (Laltaprasad was convicted of possessing less than 5 grams of heroin and cocaine. He was carrying the drugs in his prosthetic leg, the result of a violent assault for which his attackers received 2-year sentences.)  Unless and until the Legislature amends current laws imposing mandatory minimum sentences, the D.A. argues, judges must adhere to those laws, which were enacted in 1980, during the earliest days of the war on drugs.

Ah yes, the war on drugs — file under “seemed like a good idea at the time.” It was the cornerstone of Governor Ed King’s plan to make Massachusetts a safer place, regardless of how much money we might need to spend building prisons.

Thirty-six years later, things look different. And what  we know now that we didn’t know (but may have suspected) back then forms the basis of many of the arguments Mr. Laltaprasad’s attorneys are making to affirm the trial judge’s decision reducing the sentence in his case.

We know that mandatory minimum sentences are applied in a racially discriminatory manner (and Mr. Laltaprasad is a member of a racial minority, who comprise three-quarters of the persons on whom mandatory minimum sentences are imposed).

We also know that in cases involving mandatory minimum sentences, it is the prosecutor rather than the judge who decides on the sentence (in this case, the D.A.’s office elected to charge Mr. Laltaprasad with a “second or subsequent” offense, for which the mandatory minimum is 3  1/2 years).

We also know that drug addition is a chronic, relapsing brain disease for which incarceration is an inappropriate and ineffective remedy.

Together, these arguments raise important federal and state constitutional questions concerning equal protection, cruel and unusual punishment, and the separation of powers, as the briefs filed Mr. Laltaprasad’s attorneys as well as by friends of the court argue.

The Middlesex D.A.’s office responded to these arguments not by rebutting them, but by moving to strike those parts of the record supplying their evidentiary support. In opposing the D.A.’s motion to strike, Mr. Laltaprasad’s attorneys cited a rather well-known U.S. Supreme Court decision:  it “is regrettable that the Commonwealth’s only response to this data is to ask that it be ignored…Perhaps at some point in the history of American jurisprudence it was common for courts to overlook data showing the crippling effects of unconstitutional laws.  But that time has long passed.  See Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, 493-95 & n.11 (1954).”

Oof.

The Laltaprasad case is the fourth on Tuesday’s docket, which means it will be heard around 10:30.  You can watch the argument here.

 

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