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Yvonne Abraham

Imprisoned by mandates

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / May 13, 2010

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A lot of legislators are skittish these days, worried voters will dump them now that Massachusetts is a state Sarah Palin would visit — however briefly.

Maybe that’s why House members recently approved a measure allowing sheriffs to charge inmates daily fees for their incarceration. There’s no easier way to earn (Scott) Brownie points than by punishing criminals twice for the same offense, especially if it raises money during a fiscal crisis.

Now the same legislators who brought you the inmate charges are wrestling with an overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system.

Yikes.

The overhaul is a big priority for Governor Deval Patrick, and it has been pushed along by Senate President Therese Murray, whose leadership here has been stellar.

Her package includes a proposal to allow drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences to apply for parole two-thirds of the way into their terms. Sadly, that measure’s prospects in the House don’t look good.

This state, like a lot of others, put mandatory minimums in place a generation ago during the big war on drugs. Under them, dealers are sentenced solely on how much they’re selling, and where. No judicial discretion. No parole. Three and a half ounces of painkillers will get you 10 to 20 — the same penalty as for armed rape. Selling them within 1,000 feet of a school — just about everywhere in some cities — adds two to 15.

Michelle Collette got seven years, including a five-year mandatory minimum, in 2004, after a raid turned up 600 Percocet in the home she shared with her former husband. She was a small fish — drug addicted, never in trouble with the law before. After her arrest, she stopped using and got her life together.

But Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein couldn’t take any of that into account.

“I don’t think this is fair,’’ he said, when he sentenced Collette. “It’s going to cost upwards of $50,000 a year to have you in state prison. Had I the authority, I would send you to jail for no more than one year . . . and a program after that.’’

Collette, now 34, believes she deserved prison. “But seven years? I was in there with a woman who molested kids, and she did less time than I did,’’ she said.

A bunch of states have moved to soften mandatory minimums, agreeing with mountains of research suggesting they clog up prisons with nonviolent offenders and make it harder for former inmates to transition to productive lives. And these aren’t namby-pamby liberal states: We’re talking South Carolina, Nevada, Alabama.

Here, the Department of Correction, the parole board, and some sheriffs support similar moves. District attorneys are opposed.

Mandatory minimums are applied to “dealers, not users,’’ said Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett. “They’re predators, ruining the lives of many people, for profit.’’

But that doesn’t describe Collette. And those pushing for a sentencing overhaul say it doesn’t describe many others like her.

Besides, the change proposed here is no get-of-jail-free card: It merely gives inmates serving mandatory minimums for drug offenses a chance to come before parole boards, like thousands of other offenders, including violent ones. It’s a baby step.

Our prison system is dangerously stretched right now, as are our state finances. If the 2,000 inmates serving mandatory minimums for drug offenses were paroled at the same rate as other offenders, the state could save almost $18 million annually, according to a Massachusetts Bar Association study. If even some of them return to tax-paying, child-rearing lives, we save that much more.

Maybe you have no sympathy for Collette and the others. Maybe you think we should lock them up and forget about them.

The problem is, we can’t afford to.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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