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The war on drugs at home: Massachusetts high court to rule on mandatory minimums

On Tuesday, April 5, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) hears oral argument in Commonwealth v. Laltaprasad, a case that will determine whether or not state judges have the power to use common sense discretion in drug sentencing, as both the plain text of Massachusetts law and our state constitution require. The Middlesex District Attorney’s office disagrees, arguing that a district court judge did not have the authority to issue a sentence lower than the state’s mandatory minimum for a low-level drug conviction. So the state has asked the high court to reverse that ruling on appeal.

That sounds bad, but the appeal presents the SJC with an important opportunity that we hope it will seize: namely, to make crystal clear to judges throughout the Commonwealth that the state’s laws allow them to use discretion in drug sentencing in certain cases. We hope the SJC will agree that both the state statute and our constitutions provide judges with flexibility to issue shorter sentences when mitigating circumstances—like the defendant’s health or the small amount of drugs involved—are present.

There is no question that precisely these mitigating circumstances exist for the man at the center of this case, ACLU client Mr. Imran Laltaprasad.

In 2010, Mr. Laltaprasad, who is Black, was shot multiple times at close range while he was attempting to buy drugs. Thankfully he survived the violent encounter, but he was left with one leg and required years of surgeries. Three years after the shooting he was arrested carrying about five grams of heroin and cocaine—approximately the equivalent of a sugar packet of drugs—which officers found tucked in his prosthetic leg. One of the Somerville police officers who arrested him testified that Mr. Laltaprasad, who at the time had not only a prosthetic leg but also a colostomy bag, “wasn’t a pleasant sight.”

As the Commonwealth’s prosecutor acknowledged during Mr. Laltaprasad’s trial, people who are addicted to drugs often sell small quantities of narcotics to support their own habits. It was possible, the prosecutor acknowledged, that Mr. Laltaprasad was one of those people. But despite his health condition, the relatively small amount of drugs he was carrying, and the possibility that he was selling to support his own addiction, prosecutors sought the mandatory minimum sentence in his case: three and a half years in prison.

The trial judge balked. Citing the mitigating circumstances, including Mr. Laltaprasad’s health and the small amount of drugs involved, she sentenced him to two and a half years—not the three and a half the prosecution asked for, but still a lengthy prison sentence for someone accused of no violence. (The men who violently assaulted Mr. Laltaprasad back in 2010, by comparison, were sentenced to two years.)

The judge did the right thing when she sentenced Mr. Laltaprasad to less than the mandatory minimum prosecutors had asked her to adhere to. Massachusetts law established in 1996 provides clear authority to judges to decide the most appropriate sentence, even in the face of mandatory minimums. This “safety valve” has never been so important, as our nation faces a mass incarceration crisis marked by racial disparities at every level of the system.

Unfortunately, as a Black man in Massachusetts, Mr. Laltaprasad is representative of a disturbing pattern of racial disparities in drug convictions and mandatory minimum sentencing. Although people of color make up less than 25% of the Commonwealth’s population and less than 28% of people convicted of drug possession, they are roughly 55% of those convicted of drug distribution and 75% of those convicted of mandatory minimums drug offenses. Those disparities bear no relation to what we know about who sells and uses drugs. Indeed, studies over the past four decades have consistently shown that whites use and sell drugs at rates equal to or surpassing Black people.

So it is likely that, if he had been sentenced to the mandatory minimum, Mr. Laltaprasad would have been one more victim of a racially discriminatory mandatory minimum law that violates the equal protection principles of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

In Mr. Laltaprasad’s case, the Supreme Judicial Court has an opportunity to inform courts and prosecutors across the state that the mandatory minimums statute does not tie judges’ hands in every case, or limit them to following prosecutors’ orders. The safety valve established by the legislature in 1996 provides judges with a means to impose lighter sentences when circumstances and justice call for it. And that’s important not only because the statute clearly allows it. A sentencing regime that provides no safety valve from harsh mandatory minimum drug sentences would raise serious constitutional concerns about cruel or unusual punishment, equal protection, and the separation of powers.

As Massachusetts and the nation reel from a growing epidemic of opiate abuse, it makes no sense to reinforce the failed, costly messages of the Reagan-era “war on drugs.” Law enforcement officials across the state and the nation are now joining the chorus of voices calling for addiction to be treated as a health issue, not a criminal problem. We now know that “tough on crime” policies like mandatory minimums, enacted decades ago and meant to stamp out drug use, had no positive impact on either drug availability or usage rates. Putting more people in prison for longer sentences hasn’t done anything to achieve these goals. In this overly punitive drug war, all signs suggest drugs are winning. And in this failed war, communities of color are the primary casualties.

It’s therefore critical that judges have the flexibility to issue sentences that come closer to serving justice, instead of dishing out more of the senseless vengeance that has helped to make the United States the nation with the unfortunate distinction of locking up more of its people than any country in recorded history.

We hope the state’s high court will agree with Mr. Laltaprasad, the ACLU, and the dozens of supporting community, religious, and civil rights organizations in finding that judicial discretion in drug sentencing is not only authorized by state statute but also a requirement for basic justice.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.