Careful Scrutiny: The SJC and Mandatory Sentencing Laws

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by Jared B. Cohen

Legal Analysis 

The Supreme Judicial Court has long grappled with mandatory sentencing laws, expressing considerable skepticism and concern about their efficacy and fairness. Statutes that compel a fixed or minimum sentence for certain crimes shift power and discretion from judges to prosecutors. They often prevent courts from making individualized sentencing decisions tailored to the particular crime and defendant. Moreover, mounting empirical evidence shows that such laws disproportionately impact racial minorities.  

In recent years, statutes containing mandatory sentencing language have troubled the SJC and elicited a series of critical opinions. From the sharp skepticism expressed in Commonwealth v. Laltaprasad, 475 Mass. 692 (2016), through its recent decision in Commonwealth v. Montarvo, 486 Mass. 535 (2020), which construed the controversial habitual criminal offender (or “three-strikes”) law, G. L. c. 279, § 25, to authorize a sentence of probation, the SJC has subjected these statutes to increasingly rigorous scrutiny. Absent a legislative overhaul to rewrite or reform the sentencing statutes, the SJC’s skeptical and exacting review of many mandatory sentencing laws will likely remain a feature of the criminal legal landscape.

Mandatory Sentencing: Impact and Outlook

For most crimes, judges have wide discretion to impose any sentence up to the statutory maximum penalty. The facts and circumstances of each case and defendant are distinct. Part of a judge’s role under this ordinary sentencing structure is to consider the nuanced variations of each case to fashion a fair and just punishment that is effective but not harsher than necessary to achieve the legitimate purposes of sentencing.[1]  

By contrast, some statutory offenses mandate a fixed or minimum sentence. These mandatory provisions may be triggered by the crime,[2] the defendant’s criminal history,[3] or the way the offense was committed.[4] While substantially removing discretion from judges, statutes that carry mandatory sentences transfer discretion, power, and leverage to prosecutors, who can offer charge concessions during plea negotiations. Defendants are frequently willing to plead guilty and accept some period of incarceration in exchange for the prosecutor’s dismissal of a charge carrying a longer mandatory minimum sentence.          

Mandatory minimum sentences also disproportionately affect Black and Brown defendants. The September 2020 Harvard Law School study commissioned by the late Chief Justice Ralph Gants[5] found that Massachusetts mandatory sentencing laws disproportionately affect non-white defendants, leading them to face longer periods of incarceration than white defendants.[6] Based on data from 2014 to 2016, the Harvard study concluded that the racial disparity in sentencing in Massachusetts is largely explained by the racial disparity in the severity of the initial charges that defendants face; for similar conduct, non-white defendants are more likely than white defendants to be charged with offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences.[7] The study also cited numerous reports showing racial disparities in prosecutorial decisions to seek mandatory sentencing enhancements under “habitual offender” (or “three strike”) laws that have been adopted in many states.[8] 

The Harvard study supports concerns that the SJC has raised with increasing frequency over the past few years. In Commonwealth v. Laltaprasad, 475 Mass. 692, 693 (2016), for example, the SJC held that trial judges have no lawful discretion to depart downward from minimum mandatory sentences set by statute. However, in the unanimous opinion written by Justice Margot Botsford, the Court observed that

[t]he efficacy, or lack of efficacy, of mandatory minimum sentences, particularly in drug crimes, is the subject of substantial public debate. But apart from the question of efficacy in terms of the purposes to be served by criminal sentences, data concerning convictions for drug offenses in Massachusetts raise a serious concern about the disparate impact of mandatory minimum sentences on defendants who are part of racial or ethnic minority groups.

Id. at 702. Laltaprasad suggested that “[i]t may be appropriate for the Legislature to consider anew, guided by the work of the [sentencing commission], the issue of authorizing sentencing judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in relation to certain types of drug offenses in appropriate circumstances.” Id. at 703. 

Legislative action soon followed. In its landmark 2018 criminal justice reform law, the Legislature eliminated some mandatory minimum sentences for lower-level drug offenses, but left many others in place.[9] Later in 2018, Chief Justice Gants, who was joined by Justices Barbara Lenk and Kimberly Budd, suggested in a concurring opinion that the recently-enacted criminal justice reform legislation had only “begun the process of revisiting the wisdom and fairness of mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses,” and encouraged the Legislature to continue examining “the wisdom and fairness of other mandatory minimum sentences (including the length of those mandatory minimum sentences).” Commonwealth v. Baez, 480 Mass. 328, 332-33 (2018) (Gants, C.J., concurring) (emphasis in original).[10] 

Confusing Cases, Confusing Law

Against this backdrop, in recent years the SJC has wrestled with statutes that seemingly require a mandatory sentence, but which conflict internally or deviate from how similar language is used and understood in other statutes.

In Commonwealth v. Rodriguez, 482 Mass. 366 (2019), the Court addressed G. L. c. 269, § 10(m). Section 10(m) states that a person who unlawfully possesses a high-capacity firearm or feeding device “shall be punished by imprisonment in a state prison for not less than two and one-half years nor more than ten years.” But the statute also provides that anyone holding a valid firearm ID card “shall not be subject to any mandatory minimum sentence imposed by this paragraph,” and later states that “[t]he sentence imposed upon such person shall not be reduced to less than one year.” Id. Unable to determine conclusively to whom this last clause was intended to apply, the Court held that the trial court lawfully sentenced the defendant to not less than one and not more than two-and-a-half years, rejecting the prosecutor’s argument that the two-and-a-half-year mandatory minimum applied. Rodriguez, 482 Mass. at 368, 373-74.[11]

A year later, in Commonwealth v. Thomas, 484 Mass. 1024 (2020), the Court construed G. L. c. 265, § 18B, which adds a penalty for possessing a firearm during the commission of any felony. Section 18B states that a person convicted of that offense “shall, in addition to the penalty for such offense, be punished by imprisonment for not less than five years.” G. L. c. 265, § 18B. By comparing the statutory language in § 18B to similar language used in other statutes, the Court held that § 18B did not require either a consecutive sentence or a five-year minimum sentence, but authorized any custodial sentence provided the maximum sentence is no less than five years. Thomas, 484 Mass. at 1026 n.8, citing Commonwealth v. Hines, 449 Mass. 183, 191-92 (2007). 

Another notable example involves the home invasion statute, G. L. c. 265, § 18C. In Commonwealth v. Brown, 431 Mass. 772 (2000), the SJC held that the statute’s primary penalty provision, that a person convicted of a home invasion “shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for life or for any term of not less than twenty years,” meant what its plain language suggests: “§ 18C establishes a mandatory minimum sentence and that offenders under this statute may be sentenced to a term ranging from twenty years (minimum) to life (maximum).” Id. at 775.

However, the Court noted in dicta that a 1998 amendment to the statute – that a person who commits a home invasion while armed with a firearm “shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for 20 years. Said sentence shall not be reduced to less than ten years.” – was “problematic” and “lacking in coherence,” in that it introduced inconsistent language. Id. at 780-81. The Court remarked that “[m]ost likely, the problems with the amendment were simply the result of a legislative oversight, one we cannot remedy. . . . We make no attempt to interpret the amendment, but invite the Legislature to clarify it.” Id. In a later appeal more directly implicating the 1998 amendment, the Court stated that even if some results might appear absurd, where it could not discern the Legislature’s intent as far as the required sentence for a particular home invasion conviction, it would resolve any uncertainty against the Commonwealth and in favor of the defendant. Commonwealth v. Burton, 450 Mass. 55, 59-60 (2007).

In 2004, the Legislature amended G. L. c. 265, § 18C, to its current form, simplifying the statute by removing some of the 1998 amendment’s confounding language, while still retaining the same general penalty provision that a home invasion “shall be punished by imprisonment . . . for life or for any term of not less than twenty years.” Although this simplified version resolved some earlier confusion about the length of the required sentence, it raised a new question as to the availability of probation: the previous version explicitly prohibited probationary sentences, but the 2004 amendment did not. In construing the amended statute, the SJC observed that the amendment “may indicate a legislative intent to give a sentencing judge the power, in appropriate situations, to impose a term of probation in lieu of incarceration.” Commonwealth v. Zapata, 455 Mass. 530, 535 (2009). Unable to answer that question conclusively, the Court applied the rule of lenity and held that the amended statute “does not prohibit a judge from sentencing the defendant to probation.” Id.

In Zapata, the Court conceded that its “result, which has the effect of offering a sentencing judge a choice between probation and a mandatory minimum prison term of twenty years, may seem contrary to common sense,” and “may appear to be an anomalous result.” Id. at 535-36. Thus, the Court “again invite[d] the Legislature to clarify G. L. c. 265, § 18C.” Id. at 536. To date, the Legislature has not done so. Nor would it be the last time the Court reached such an “anomalous result.”   

Déjà vu: Commonwealth v. Montarvo

In December 2020, the SJC issued another decision, this time construing the habitual criminal offender statute. That statute, also known as the “three-strikes” law, provides that any person convicted of a third qualifying felony “shall be punished by imprisonment in state prison or state correctional facility for such felony for the maximum term provided by law.” G. L. c. 279, § 25(a). Despite this seemingly plain language, in Commonwealth v. Montarvo, 486 Mass. 535 (2020), the Court held that the law allows a judge to impose a sentence of probation. In a unanimous opinion, the SJC found the sentencing provision ambiguous and once again concluded that the rule of lenity required a reading more favorable to the defendant.

To understand Montarvo, it is necessary to understand the habitual criminal offender law as a whole. The statute has two primary penalty provisions. Subsection (a) states that a person who is convicted of any felony after having twice previously been convicted of a felony and sentenced to prison terms of at least three years, “shall be considered a habitual criminal and shall be punished by imprisonment in state prison or state correctional facility for such felony for the maximum term provided by law.” G. L. c. 279, § 25(a). Subsection (b) states that a person who is convicted of one of nearly 40 specified violent crimes after having twice previously been convicted of qualifying offenses and sentenced to prison terms of at least three years “shall be considered a habitual offender and shall be imprisoned in the state prison or state correctional facility for the maximum term provided by law” for the specifically enumerated felony. G. L. c. 279, § 25(b). Subsection (b) further specifies that “[n]o sentence imposed under this subsection shall be reduced or suspended nor shall such person so sentenced be eligible for probation, parole, work release or furlough or receive any deduction from such person’s sentence for good conduct.” G. L. c. 279, § 25(b). There is no comparable provision in subsection (a).

Read in isolation from one another, each of these two subsections seems on its face to require sentencing a qualifying defendant to the “maximum term provided by law.” Reading the two provisions together, however, the SJC found inconsistency and ambiguity. The Court observed that although the plain text of § 25(a) seemed clear, the immediately following text of § 25(b) explicitly prohibiting probation (as well as parole and reduced or suspended sentences) implied that without such explicit prohibition in § 25(a), judges might still retain authority to deviate from a mandatory prison sentence under § 25(a). Montarvo, 486 Mass. at 537. The Court found this interpretation plausible given the text indicating “the Legislature intended the punishment imposed on the ‘habitual violent offenders’ sentenced under § 25(b) to be both more limited in its application and harsher once imposed than the penalties imposed under § 25(a).” Id. at 539. But other SJC precedent interpreting the statute’s basic sentencing language raised doubts about that proposition. Reading both subsections together, and employing all applicable tools of statutory interpretation, the Court concluded that, “whichever way the plain language of G. L. c. 279, § 25, is read, some aspect of it is superfluous. Thus, we are left to conclude that the text of G. L. c. 279, § 25 (a), is ambiguous on the matter of probation.” Id. at 540.  

Given the ambiguity, the Court looked unsuccessfully to legislative history and intent, reasoning that, “when the Legislature intends to bar probation, it knows how to say so explicitly.” Id., citing Zapata, 455 Mass. at 535. Ultimately unable to discern the Legislature’s intent or resolve the statute’s ambiguity, the SJC once again applied the rule of lenity, concluding that it “must read § 25 (a) to provide sentencing judges with the discretion to impose probation.” Id. at 542. This holding, the SJC acknowledged, “has the effect of offering a sentencing judge in some cases a Hobson’s choice between probation and a mandatory term of twenty years in prison,” which may seem nonsensical. “Yet if this choice sounds familiar,” the Court noted, “that is because it is. In Zapata, we reached the same result.” Id. at 543.[12] Once again, stymied by its own legal analysis, the SJC threw up its hands and pointed to an incoherent statutory scheme that guaranteed no satisfactory outcome.

Conclusion

Montarvo is simply the latest case that demonstrates the difficulty the courts have had interpreting many of the Commonwealth’s mandatory sentencing laws. Given the SJC’s underlying reservations about the disparate impact of mandatory sentencing laws, and the Court’s chafing at arbitrary restrictions imposed by particular statutes, it is likely that these laws will continue to be subject to careful scrutiny. It would not be a surprise to see future cases in which the SJC finds less-than-obvious exceptions or escape hatches to avoid the imposition of mandatory sentences that may seem clear on the face of a statute.

[1] See Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, at 102 (“Best Practice Principles for Individualized Evidence-Based Sentencing”). The Sentencing Commission “does not endorse the use of mandatory minimum sentences.” Id. at 59. 

[2] See, e.g., G. L. c. 265, § 1 (murder in the first degree “punishable with . . . imprisonment for life”); G. L. c. 269, § 10(a) (unlawful possession of a firearm outside of home or work “shall be punished by imprisonment . . . for not less than 18 months . . . in a jail or house of correction”); G. L. c. 269, § 10(m) (unlawful possession of a magazine with a capacity of more than 10 bullets “shall be punished by imprisonment in a state prison for not less than two and one-half years”).

[3] See, e.g., G. L. c. 94C, § 32(b) (mandatory penalty for possession with intent to distribute a Class A controlled substance based on prior convictions); G. L. c. 269, § 10(d) (mandatory penalties increased for unlawful possession of a firearm depending on prior similar convictions); G. L. c. 269, § 10G (mandatory penalties increased for unlawful possession of a firearm depending on prior criminal record).

[4] Compare G. L. c. 265, § 13B (penalty for indecent assault and battery on a child under 14 punishable by up to 10 years) with G. L. c. 265, § 13B1/2 (indecent assault and battery on a child under 14 committed during another enumerated crime or by a mandated reporter “shall be punished by imprisonment . . . not less than 10 years”). See also, e.g., G. L. c. 94C, § 32E (increasing mandatory sentences depending on weight of illegal drugs charged).

[5] In his first State of the Judiciary Address in 2014, Chief Justice Gants called for the elimination of mandatory sentencing laws in favor of individualized, evidence-based sentencing in all criminal cases. He noted that charges with mandatory minimum sentences give prosecutors more power than judges in sentencing and result in disparate and inequitable impact on minority communities. He made similar observations and calls to action when testifying before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary in 2015. In his 2016 Judiciary Address, Chief Justice Gants announced that he had enlisted Harvard to study the persistent racial disparity in sentencing. 

[6] “Black and Latinx people charged with offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences are substantially more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer sentences than White people facing charges carrying mandatory minimum incarceration sentences.” “Racial Disparities in the Massachusetts Criminal System,” A Report by The Criminal Justice Policy Program, Harvard Law School (2020), at 2. More broadly, it found that in a number of ways, “mandatory and statutory minimum sentences contribute to the disparities we see in incarceration length for people of color.” Id. at 59; see generally id. at 2-4, 28-32, 52-64. 

[7] Id. at 64 (“Black and Latinx defendants tend to face more serious initial charges that are more likely to carry a mandatory or statutory minimum sentence. Despite facing more serious initial charges, however, Black and Latinx defendants in Superior Court are convicted of offenses roughly equal in seriousness to their White counterparts. . . . Further, the penalty in incarceration length is largest for drug and weapons charges, offenses that carry longstanding racialized stigmas. We believe that this evidence is consistent with racially disparate initial charging practices leading to weaker initial positions in the plea bargaining process for Black defendants, which then translate into longer incarceration sentences for similar offenses.”).

[8] These studies were based on data from jurisdictions outside of Massachusetts. Id. at 59.     

[9] Many individuals charged with common offenses, including unlawful possession of a firearm or drug distribution—even absent any allegation of violence—are still routinely subject to mandatory minimums.    

[10] In Baez, the Court held that prior juvenile adjudications may constitutionally be used as prior convictions for sentencing adult defendants under Massachusetts’s “armed career criminal act,” G. L. c. 269, § 10G. Chief Justice Gants wrote separately “to encourage the Legislature to consider the wisdom and fairness of the mandatory minimum aspect of those enhanced sentences, especially where the predicate offenses were committed when the defendant was a juvenile.” Baez, 480 Mass. at 332.

[11] Acknowledging this “imperfect” statute’s “opaque” language was described by various trial and appellate judges as “vexing,” “confusing,” and “no grammatical paragon,” and had “caused courts some consternation,” the SJC left little doubt about its view of § 10(m): “Harmonizing the provisions in a manner that does not make any of the statutory language superfluous, that sees the statute as a whole without internal contradiction, and that renders the legislation consistent with common sense, all as the Legislature intended, is quite the job with this statute. The legislative history, while interesting, is only minimally helpful in resolving the issue at hand.” Rodriguez, 482 Mass. at 368, 369-71, 373 (internal citations omitted). 

[12] As in Zapata, the Court in Montarvo invited the Legislature to clarify its intent: “Should the Legislature decide to do so, it may amend § 25(a) to bar a judge from imposing probation. It need not look far for how to accomplish this goal.” 486 Mass. at 543, citing G. L. c. 279, § 25(b).   

Jared B. Cohen is an Assistant Attorney General in the Criminal Bureau of the Attorney General’s Office and a current participant in the BBA’s Public Interest Leadership Program.  This article represents the opinions and legal conclusions of its author and not necessarily those of the Office of the Attorney General. Opinions of the Attorney General are formal documents rendered pursuant to specific statutory authority.



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