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More Than Blinds Group

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Untold: Crimes Penalties


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The intimidating patriarch of the Galante family was eventually arrested for his illegal business dealings. Jimmy Galante was charged with crimes including extortion, evading the IRS, and racketeering as well as wire fraud. According to a report by the Hartford Courant, Galante not only sabotaged and strong-armed competing garbage disposal companies; he also tampered with witnesses by telling them what to say in court.


It is appropriate to restate our understanding of the requirement that criminal conduct must be delineated with a reasonable degree of definiteness. Commonwealth v. Reilly, 248 Mass. 1 (1924). Commonwealth v. Pentz, 247 Mass. 500 (1924). Fundamental is the premise that a penal statute must be sufficiently well-expressed that those who may be subject to its penalties should not be forced to guess at its meaning. McQuade v. New York Cent. R.R., 320 Mass. 35, 40 (1946). Yet, a statute does not fail to satisfy constitutional requirements merely because it uses general terms. Jaquith v. Commonwealth, 331 Mass. 439, 442 (1954). If the language which is challenged as being vague conveys a definite warning of proscribed conduct--when measured by common understanding and practices--it is constitutionally adequate. Commonwealth v. Jarrett, 359 Mass. 491, 496-497 (1971). Language of statutes, criminal statutes included, may also be given definite meaning when viewed in light of common law interpretations or against the background of the terms' statutory history. Commonwealth v. Balthazar, 366 Mass. 298, 300 (1974). Commonwealth v. Brasher, 359 Mass. 550, 553 (1971).


offence as to constitute a cruel and unusual punishment." McDonald v. Commonwealth, 173 Mass. 322, 328 (1899), aff'd, 180 U.S. 311 (1900). Underlying this principle is "a precept of justice that punishment for crime should be graduated and proportioned to offense." Weems v. United States, 217 U.S. 349, 367 (1910). But in judging legislative determinations of crimes and punishments, we exercise our powers of review with great caution. Commonwealth v. Jackson, 369 Mass. 904, 909 (1976). As we have earlier observed, the Legislature's power to proscribe conduct and to prescribe penalties is necessarily broad and its judgment is to be accorded due respect. [Note 7] Commonwealth v. Jackson, supra. Commonwealth v. Morrow, 363 Mass. 601, 610-611 (1973). Only where the punishment is so disproportionate to the crime that it shocks the conscience and offends fundamental notions of human dignity may we declare a criminal sanction to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment or art. 26. Commonwealth v. Jackson, supra at 910, citing In re Lynch, 8 Cal. 3d 410, 424 (1972).


analysis: (1) the nature of the offense and of the offender, (2) a comparison with penalties of other jurisdictions for the same offense, and (3) a comparison with penalties for more serious crimes within the jurisdiction. Viewed according to this test, the proposed sentencing provisions questioned here, we conclude, are not in violation of the constitutional proscription against "cruel and unusual" punishment.


We begin by examining the nature of the crime of drug distribution and what we may assume to be the rationale for mandatory sentencing. There can be little doubt that the problems connected with traffic in narcotics are serious social concerns. Indeed, criminal narcotics sales are not simply isolated economic transactions. They may be said to form the root of a pervasive cycle of destructive drug abuse, a phenomenon which accounts for untold numbers of crimes of violence and crimes against property. President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, Task Force Report: Narcotics and Drug Abuse, 7, 10-11 (1967).


such harsh terms ordered for offenders whose only crime was the possession of a small quantity of narcotics, we would be more hesitant in certifying these penalties under the Eighth Amendment or art. 26. See Downey v. Perini, 518 F.2d 1288 (6th Cir.), vacated and re




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