Lessening very long sentences for those arrested for possession of drugs is not the most popular cause to take on. Yes, community groups like mine had taken it up, but it’s very uphill convincing state legislators and Governors who most fear the charge that they are “soft on crime”.
The unlikely but real champion in the fight to repeal long mandatory minimum sentences was Chief Justice Ralph Gants.
At a packed State House hearing on criminal justice legislation on June 9, 2015, Chief Justice Gants got up and said this and more.
"There are at least three reasons why the Legislature needs to abolish mandatory minimum sentences: racial justice, justice reinvestment, and fairness in sentencing. Let me begin with racial justice: mandatory minimum sentences have a disparate impact on persons of color. I can spare you a thousand words by turning your attention to Exhibit 1. That chart shows that in 2013, 44% of all persons convicted of drug offenses were persons of color, but 75% of all persons convicted of drug offenses with mandatory minimum sentences were persons of color. This remarkable 31% differential is not a one year phenomenon; it is the same differential as in 2002. And the differential during this twelve year period never fell below 20%. Given the durability of this racially disparate treatment over time, there is no reason to believe that the past will not be prologue. If you do not abolish minimum mandatory sentences for drug offenses, you must accept the tragic fact that this disparate treatment of persons of color will be allowed to continue."
He was immediately attacked following his testimony by almost all the District Attorneys in the state coming forward to spend an hour testifying for why these mandatory minimums should be kept in place. And they kept on attacking him in the media.
One of these mandatory minimums caught anyone who sold drugs within 1000 feet of a school with such an automatic long sentence. It could have been reasonable to penalize sales to teens. But this punitive law covered any drug sales to adults near a school, even sales at midnight when no youth were around, even sales that took place 6 blocks or a 1000 feet from a school. This was the War on Drugs.
The biggest driver of mass incarceration were these long mandatory minimum sentences on drug charges. And the disproportionate sufferers of these sentences were people of color. That’s it.
Chief Justice Gants kept speaking out on this despite the attacks.
I am an organizer in a group called Massachusetts Communities Action Network and we were one of the Steering Committee members of the Jobs Not Jails Coalition that took on this criminal justice reform campaign. We put Justice Gants’s statement on fliers, fact sheets, letters to legislators, and quoted them in meetings with legislators. They may not of believed us, but it was very hard to disregard a Chief Justice, let alone one who had the data to back it up.
Whether or not to repeal any of these mandatory minimums was the most contentious issue up for a decision. Not all were repealed but five of these mandatory minimums on different drugs were repealed. It meant less people went to prison for a long a time and it meant more people ended up getting referred to treatment instead of prison. And it was a measure of racial justice.
I’ve been at it for 50 years as a community organizer in Massachusetts, but I have never seen a Chief Justice step out his lane to prophetically challenge such injustices. It just isn’t done. The very powerful, and he was a powerful person as Chief Justice, just don’t take such risks very often. So we will miss him a lot. I would humbly ask other powerful politicians and corporate leaders to take a moment and sit down and think about some risks they can take to change the story when we have so many people hurting with lives of pain and despair.
Lew Finfer is the Co-Director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network.