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Lois Ahrens: Massachusetts lags on prison sentencing reform

To the editor:

I agree with Attorney General Eric Holder (“Getting smart, not tough, on crime,” editorial, Aug. 14) that it is long past time for the nation to end the laws and policies that have packed prisons and jails with 2.3 million men and women. In some states such as New York, Kentucky and Texas, legislators are working to find alternatives to incarceration for people convicted of drug offenses and other crimes.

In November, Californians voted to end the worst abuses of “three-strikes.”

Massachusetts, however, falls way behind the reform curve. In fact, just a year ago, the Massachusetts Legislature, with the support of every member of the Hampshire County delegation, voted overwhelmingly to pass “three strikes.” The last state to do this was Arizona in 2005.

In Massachusetts, African-Americans and Latinos make up 12 percent of the population but 54 percent of those incarcerated and people of color are 71 percent of those serving mandatory minimums for drug offenses.

This is not due to greater criminality but to policing — the Massachusetts equivalent of “stop and frisk,” zero tolerance school policies, lack of bail reform and less access to quality legal representation.

Eric Holder called for an end to mandatory minimum sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenses at the federal level. Massachusetts lawmakers can follow the lead of the attorney general and pass House Bill 1646, sponsored by state Rep. Benjamin Swan of Springfield and co-sponsored by Reps. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton, and Ellen Story, D-Amherst, which would repeal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses.

We need to work to change these extremely punitive and unfair laws. The time is now.

Lois Ahrens

Northampton

The author is the director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project.

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