Metro

House to begin moving on criminal justice bill

Rahsaan Hall, pictured earlier this year, spoke at the State House on Tuesday in support of a criminal justice bill, calling it “a bold and strident step.”
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Rahsaan Hall, pictured earlier this year, spoke at the State House on Tuesday in support of a criminal justice bill, calling it “a bold and strident step.”

The House is poised Wednesday to tee up a controversial criminal justice bill that passed the Senate last week but was criticized Tuesday by Governor Charlie Baker, who said he had “very significant concern” with the measure.

House leaders plan Wednesday to set a deadline of Nov. 9 to consider changes to the bill, with the aim of passing their own, likely whittled-down version of criminal justice legislation by Thanksgiving. The measure is one of the few big-ticket items on Beacon Hill’s agenda this year.

Baker on Tuesday criticized the Senate bill, saying there were a number of “elements in it that just seem to not make a heck of a lot of sense.” He singled out the Senate proposal’s elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking offenses.

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“In the middle of this terrible opioid and heroin epidemic, the legislation, in a number of instances, dramatically reduces the penalties for drug dealers in heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine,” Baker said.

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House Assistant Majority Leader Byron Rushing said he expected the House to pass the bill by Thanksgiving and convene with the Senate to hammer out a compromise. He said the House version would likely not be as expansive as the Senate version, which a majority of the state’s district attorneys have criticized for the “sheer size and reach of the bill.”

“I think it’s not going to cover as much,” Rushing said of the pending House draft. “I think the House is more careful. I don’t think the House feels like it needs to answer every question about injustices in the system.”

The sweeping Senate measure would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes such as trafficking up to 100 grams of cocaine and make the changes retroactive, allowing hundreds of convicted dealers the chance for early release. The bill would also strengthen penalties for some crimes, like trafficking fentanyl, a potent opioid.

Under the Senate proposal, drug dealers convicted of selling heroin within 300 feet of a school would no longer face mandatory minimums, and sex between young teens close in age would be legalized. The age of criminal responsibility would climb from 18 years old to a highest-in-the-nation 19.

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At a State House press conference on Tuesday, a series of speakers called the Senate bill a positive stride toward reducing racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice system and encouraged the House to follow suit.

“This bill pushes us toward an equitable criminal justice system,” said the Rev. Art Gordon, pastor of the St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Roxbury.

Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program for the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the Senate bill “a bold and strident step,” but said, “It does not go as far as we would like it to go.”

Hall ripped the nine district attorneys, out of the state’s 11, who sent a letter calling the bill “far out of balance,” saying they had used “demonizing and offensive rhetoric.”

One of the speakers, Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, jabbed at Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, one of the district attorneys who signed the letter.

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“For the last two terms, Dan Conley has counted on black voters to get reelected,” Small said, adding he was hoping that Conley would “have a change of heart” about the legislation.

Later, in a telephone interview, Small said, “2018 is an election year and he’s up for reelection, and if we need a target, he will very easily be the target. ... We’re counting on him to come around on this.”

In an e-mail, Conley spokesman Jake Wark said that Conley “has worked with Boston’s clergy and community leaders for years and has often been guided by their collaboration. He values their input regardless of whether they share his opinion on every aspect of the Senate’s bill. In fact, he met with Mr. Small and many others just a few weeks ago to discuss this very topic.”

Wark said that Conley “supports sensible bail reform, reducing collateral consequences, easing fines and fees that weigh unfairly on low-income defendants, and repealing mandatory sentences for school zone offenses that disproportionately affect his constituents.”

Conley opposes “surprise additions” like legalizing “sexual contact between children and adolescents, allowing municipalities to decriminalize misdemeanors, or easing the penalties for drug trafficking aren’t new or promising ideas,” Wark said.

State Representative Claire Cronin, the Brockton Democrat who cochairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and is authoring the House bill, did not respond to requests for comment.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at jim.osullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.