BOSTON (CN) — Massachusetts judges must adhere to mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines regardless of extenuating circumstances, the state's Supreme Judicial Court ruled.
The Oct. 14 ruling overturned a 2½-year sentence for a man convicted of drug dealing.
"We conclude that because the Legislature has not yet enacted into law sentencing guidelines recommended by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, a sentencing judge currently may not impose a sentence that departs from the prescribed mandatory minimum term," Associate Justice Margot Botsford wrote for the court.
A Middlesex County jury in July 2015 convicted Imran Laltaprasad of possession of heroin and cocaine with intent to distribute. He was arrested with 10 small bags of cocaine and two small bags of heroin hidden in his prosthetic leg after he was caught on police surveillance selling some of the cocaine. All of the seized drugs weighed less 1 gram in total.
After being convicted on two counts of possession, one for each drug, the trial judge sentenced him to 2½ years rather than the state-mandated minimum of a total of 7 years.
The trial judge wrote in her memorandum of decision that the lighter sentence was justified because of the small amount of drugs and because Laltaprasad had recently been seriously injured when he was shot 11 times, causing him to lose a leg and suffer "serious abdominal damage."
In 1996 Massachusetts enacted a law that called for creation of a state Sentencing Commission. The trial judge relied on a state law that allows judges to issue sentences lighter than the mandatory minimum if the judge explains the reasoning for it.
But the state argued that that element of the law takes effect only after the Legislature enacts the recommended guidelines from the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission — which has not happened in the 20 years since the law authorizing the commission was passed.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, in an amicus brief in support of Laltaprasad, called on states to reform their mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
"Our elected leaders on both sides of the aisle now acknowledge that we cannot arrest our way out of the problem of substance abuse, despite prosecutors' ongoing efforts to do so," ACLU of Massachusetts legal director Matthew Segal said in a statement.
"Today's ruling confirms that as long as the mandatory minimum statute is on the books, excessive and racially discriminatory sentencing will continue year after year, injustice after injustice."