States cut drug penalties as Canada toughens them

After more than 20 years of the war on drugs, more than a dozen U.S. states are reducing penalties for many drug offences — at the same time Canada starts stiffening them.
More than a dozen U.S. states are reducing penalties for drug offences as states struggle to cover the costs of overcrowded prisons. (The Canadian Press)

After more than 20 years of the war on drugs, more than a dozen U.S. states are reducing penalties for many drug offences.

The move away from mandatory minimum sentences without any chance of parole comes as states struggle to cover the costs of overcrowded prisons in the midst of tough economic times.

Republicans and Democrats alike have also recognized weaknesses in their tough-on-crime, one-size-fits-all sentences.

That's different from Canada, where the Conservative government has started toughening sentencing and imposing mandatory minimums for a number of crimes.

Lt. Richard Santangelo, who joined the Belmont, Mass., police force at the age of 18, says he's noticed a changing environment when it comes to the war on drugs. 

"Most police officers are fairly conservative and we want to see people go away for a lot of time but we're also realists," Santangelo said.

The reality is Massachusetts' prisons are at 140 per cent capacity. It costs the state roughly $50,000 a year for each of its 11,000 inmates. That's why Santangelo says he's reluctantly open to sentencing reforms.

"The prisons are so overcrowded right now, most of them, if we can free up a little space for the more hardcore drug offences, it might be what we have to do."

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has introduced a bill that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offences and shrink drug-free school zones from 300 metres to 30. People caught dealing drugs in that radius would face an automatic two years in jail. 

In Belmont, Santangelo says a lot of people get caught up in that net.

"Unfortunately, if you look at the design of the town and the number of schools out there, it's such a small town with such a large number of schools, a lot of the town is a drug-free school zone."

Will Brownsberger, the Democrat representative for Belmont and a former state assistant attorney general, has published research about drug-free school zones.

"The idea of a school zone is a place that should be especially safe," he said. "But if you define very broad school zones, then basically any place that anybody might deal drugs is a school zone with the result that they don't have any incentive to stay away from schools."

Brownsberger's research shows no difference in the density of drug deals near schools or farther away. He says school zones just create mandatory minimums that basically apply to most territory in most cities.

Minimums scrapped

In nearby Rhode Island, the state recently scrapped all mandatory minimums for drug offences.

Mark Mauer, executive director of a Washington, D.C., think-tank  called the Sentencing Project, says it's happening across the United States, from North Dakota to South Carolina. 

"Governors need to balance their budgets, and if you want to do that in the short-term you can't possibly do that without looking at the cost of incarceration," he said.

The Massachusetts governor's proposals aren't popular with Tim Cruz, the district attorney for Plymouth County.

"I believe, living and working in a community that I currently am in right now, I believe first and foremost that drug-dealing is a violent activity," he said.

Cruz, who describes himself as the state's most conservative DA, says he's proud of how tough Massachusetts is on drug dealers. Someone caught selling more than 200 grams of cocaine faces a 15-year mandatory minimum.

"If an individual sells drugs, whether it be Class B, which is cocaine or crack, and they sell above a certain weight, over 200 [grams], is a 15-year minimum here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  If you do that within 1,000 feet of the real property of a school then you're also looking at another two years on top of that for a 17-year mandatory minimum sentence in jail," he said.

Cruz says uniformity in sentences is important. 

"If you think to where we were in Massachusetts 15 years back ... you could be arrested in Plymouth County and get one sentence, and if you were in Essex County you may be getting another sentence because you're going before a different judge."

Sentences not just

Republican State Representative Dan Winslow says that during his eight years as a circuit judge in Massachusetts lower trial court he was compelled to impose several mandatory minimums over the years. And it didn't always feel right, he says.

"I think I'm the first judge ever to serve in the state legislature so I bring with me the experience of seeing these laws in effect."

Winslow recalls one case in particular where he had to sentence a man with no record — one who was headed to college on a full hockey scholarship — to prison for two years and a day.

"It didn't feel very good.  It didn't feel just. I do think that when you do the crime you have to have some consequences but I also think that the consequence should be tailored."

Where Cruz argues mandatory minimums result in consistent treatment, Winslow says all it does is shift the sentencing decision from the judge to the prosecutor.

"The issue is whether minimum mandatories as a concept works for non-violent offenders," he said. "You know we've had the benefit now of seeing the war on drugs. Can we really say we're winning it?

"Should you treat somebody who has never ever been in trouble with the law and has clearly made a mistake, screwed up, so to speak, the same way you would somebody who has a long record of drug abuse or violence? I don't think so."

That question will be debated further next month, when the proposed legislation heads to committee hearings at the state house.


Alison Crawford is a senior reporter in CBC's parliamentary bureau, covering justice, public safety, the Supreme Court and Liberal Party of Canada.