Massachusetts House Embraces Criminal-Justice Reform

BOSTON (CN) – Efforts to reform the Massachusetts criminal-justice system cleared another hurdle as the state House passed an omnibus bill on the heels of a version passed by the Senate.

In addition to eliminating numerous mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenses and increasing the thresholds for felony theft and solitary confinement, the bill dedicates more resources to programs designed to reduce recidivism. 

Support for juvenile offenders is another hallmark of the bill, which includes new ways to expunge records.

Passing through the Democrat-controlled House 144-9 on Wednesday, the bill came out of the chamber’s Ways and Means Committee under new Chair Jeffrey Sanchez.

“Growing up in Boston, many of my childhood friends felt the impacts of an unjust criminal justice system,” Sanchez said in a statement. “Some made mistakes early in their lives, and they continue to serve time because of distorted record systems, outdated laws, mandatory minimums for low level crimes, and other laws addressed by these bills.”

A joint committee must now harmonize the House and Senate versions of the bill, putting forward a final draft that will have to pass by both legislative chambers again before landing on the governor’s desk.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts applauded Wednesday’s development.

“Our elected representatives showed courage, compassion, and moral leadership by advancing a number of important reforms, most notably, the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses,” the group said in a statement. “For years, mandatory sentences have driven over-incarceration and unfairly punished communities of color, poor people, and people suffering from substance use disorders. We cannot incarcerate our way out of the opioid crisis. Public health crises require public health solutions.”

Reform efforts have been underway in Massachusetts as part of a multiyear study of the criminal-justice system. Among several recommendations that the Council of State Governments Justice Center laid out in February were increasing inmate participation in recidivism projects and resources for mental health services, and improving data collection, post-incarceration supervision, and interagency collaboration.

“Massachusetts should be proud that our prison population has declined by 1,300 inmates over the last two years, leaving us with one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country,” Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement when the council released its report. “However, we must focus on addressing recidivism by providing opportunities for certain prisoners who are willing to help themselves and participate in programs like workforce skills training opportunities that put them on the path to being productive members of society once their sentence is served.”

A reform bill passed late last month by the state Senate spurred a critical open letter from nine of the state’s 11 district attorneys.

“There are aspects of the bill which we believe hold out promise and which we embrace, but still feel that too many aspects of the bill throw it far out of balance,” the letter said. “This undermines the cause and pursuit of fair and equal justice for all, largely ignores the interests of victims of crime, and puts at risk the undeniable strides and unparalleled success of Massachusetts’ approach to public safety and criminal justice for at least the last 25 years.”

Among other points, the DAs took issue with how the Senate bill unravels mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenses, decriminalizes sexual behavior between two consenting minors who are close in age but no younger than 13, and increases the age at which someone is tried as an adult from 18 to 19.

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