The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently heard argument in Commonwealth v. Laltaprasad, a case that involves the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences. In 2015, Laltaprasad was convicted of possession and intent to distribute under $1,000 of cocaine and heroin; because Laltaprasad has previous convictions for possession and distribution of cocaine and heroin, the recidivist sentencing statute required a 3.5 year mandatory minimum sentence. Nonetheless, after considering both the small amount of drugs involved and Laltaprasad’s poor health, Superior Court Judge Shannon Frison imposed only 2.5 years of imprisonment. Prosecutors at the Middlesex County DA’s office appealed the ruling, arguing that the judge should have imposed the mandatory minimum sentence.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will decide if the state’s sentencing statute effectively established a “safety valve” provision, and if not, if the mandatory minimums are unconstitutional.

The statute in question reads:

[I]f the judge sets forth in writing reasons for departing from that range on a sentencing statement based on a finding that there exists one or more mitigating circumstances that should result in a sentence different from the one otherwise prescribed by the guidelines and below any applicable mandatory minimum term.

The commission shall assure that the guidelines are neutral as to the race, sex, national origin, creed, religion and socio-economic status of offenders.

However, the State has argued that the statutory provision including the sentencing “safety valve” was premised on the guidelines becoming binding, which they have not.

While white and non-white Americans “use and distribute drugs at comparable rates,” Brown and Black people “account for 55 percent of drug distribution convictions that do not trigger a mandatory minimum, and 75 percent of drug convictions that do.” It is hard to believe that most Massachusetts citizens would believe Laltaprasad deserves more prison time than the violent criminals that caused the amputation of one of his legs for distributing a small quantity of drugs.

The oral argument from the case can be watched here.