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By Jack Crowe
Two bills that would strike down mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders were recently introduced in the Massachusetts House, as yet another state ignores Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ push for “tough-on-crime” policy.
Sessions has pushed for mandatory minimums since his appointment in January, ordering DOJ prosecutors in March to pursue the most severe penalties possible in every case.
The Massachusetts laws, similar to those recently passed in Louisiana, Illinois, and Oklahoma, would give judges and prosecutors more discretion, allowing them to fit penalties to specific cases within legal limits, the Bay State Banner reported Wednesday.
Criminal justice reforms like these have found growing support across the country for the last decade, a trend supporters credit to the justice system’s obvious need for reform.
“America’s prisons have a roughly 47 percent recidivism rate–that’s a 47 percent failure rate,” Steve Hawkins, president of the Coalition for Public Safety told TheDCNF Wednesday. “No other government program would tolerate that rate of failure.”
Massachusetts is only the most recent state to agree with Hawkins’ assessment. In May, the Republican-controlled Louisiana House passed a massive 10-bill criminal justice reform package to decrease the state’s prison population by 10 percent over the next decade.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bail reform measure in Illinois on June 6 to get more people out of jails, and Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed SB 603 on June 5 to reduce Oklahoma’s recidivism rate by matching restitution payments to an inmate’s ability to pay. (RELATED: Jeff Sessions Alone Pushing ‘Tough-On-Crime’ Policy In Country Ready For Reform)
Hawkins argues mandatory minimums give too harsh of punishments for low level crimes and actually increase the crime rate as a result. He claims it costs less for prisons to ensure inmates never come back by better preparing them for re-entry into society than to house them as cheaply as possible multiple times due to recidivism.
“If you give your son a five-minute time out, he’ll learn his lesson,” Hawkins said. “But if you make him stay for too long, he’ll just be mad the rest of the day.”
He calls this growing view of justice reform “smart-on-crime” policy, and claims it isn’t in conflict with Sessions’ “tough-on-crime” stance.
Sessions announced one program Monday, which justice reformers could be prepared to support: the National Public Safety Partnership, which grants federal support to certain cities fighting spikes in violent crime.
“Our new National Public Safety Partnership program will help these communities build up their own capacity to fight crime, by making use of data-driven, evidence-based strategies tailored to specific local concerns, and by drawing upon the expertise and resources of our Department,” Sessions said in the statement.
Hawkins said Sessions’ March mandatory minimum order was “attacking a problem with a chainsaw when you need a scalpel,” but that this recent approach of targeting specific cities for support is more effective.
Massachusetts state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who advocates for striking the state’s minimum sentences, has high hopes for the state becoming the next state to adopt “smart-on-crime” reform.
“This is my ninth year in the legislature and we’ve never been this close,” She said at a Monday rally.
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