I’m State Senator Jamie Eldridge of the Middlesex and Worcester district, and very proud to co-chair the Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus, along with State Representative Tom Sannicandro.
I am speaking here today representing the caucus, made up of over 70 House and Senate members, Democrats and Republicans, to issue a call to action to legislators to end mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, and to commit to reinvesting the money saved from this long overdue reform in job training, rehabilitation, and addressing substance abuse. We believe the time is ripe to pass these reforms to our criminal justice system, this legislative session.
Legislation to do just that will be laid out by my colleagues standing here, which are before the Judiciary Committee for a public hearing today.
Today in Massachusetts, our state prison population is just under 10,000 people, with over 1400 in prison for drug crimes, including over 900 in prison on mandatory minimum prison sentences. These sentences continue to come down upon Massachusetts residents by prosecutors and judges. Just past weekend, I met with a constituent of mine, at MCI-Concord, who has recently begun serving a 5-year mandatory minimum drug sentence. In fact, 70 % of Dept. of Correction prisoners currently incarcerated for a drug offense were sentenced under mandatory minimum statutes.
A lot has changed since these laws were put on the books in the late 1980s and 1990s, including public opinion.
A 2014 poll conducted by Mass, Inc. found that support for mandatory minimum sentences for any crime has fallen to 11%. Nearly 2/3rds polled see illegal drug use as a health issue, not a criminal issue, and over 2/3rds would prefer to reform the system, rather than build more prisons.
We now have statewide law enforcement leaders, including Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, and Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins, who I’m proud is here with us today, who have endorsed repealing mandatory minimum sentences. We also have the state’s most distinguished jurist, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, calling for repeal of these laws.
We have criminal justice reform organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement (EPOCA), as well as the ACLU, that have been leading this effort for over a decade, and new grassroots organizations such as Jobs Not Jails and End Mass Incarceration Together that have been reaching out to new constituencies, all in support of comprehensive reform.
Indeed, we have a bipartisan consensus pulsing throughout the United States to move away from this often arbitrary, cruel, and biased form of sentencing.
And most importantly, we have the stories of how the lives of impacted individuals and their loved ones are ripped apart, and communities made more unsafe and economically broken, as a result of 30 years of overly punitive drug law sentencing, which you will hear all throughout today at the State House. The time is now, for comprehensive reform.