Maura Healey was the state’s chief law enforcement officer for eight years. She was a civil rights attorney and led groundbreaking court challenges. No one in seven decades has been elected governor with her résumé.
Yet, despite that background, advocates and lawmakers say they have surprisingly little grasp of how exactly the state’s new leader will govern on issues of criminal justice and police reform.
She did not highlight any criminal justice proposals in her inaugural address last month. And she reappointed Terrence Reidy, the public safety secretary under then-Governor Charlie Baker, a leader whom advocates criticized for not embracing the full spirit of a 2018 bill meant to overhaul the criminal legal system.
In her first few weeks in office, Healey has grown slightly more specific on where she stands. The new governor has begun staking out positions on some high-profile criminal justice bills; she also previously championed parts of that sweeping five-year-old criminal justice legislation. But whether she has the appetite to expand on it or, say, retool the state’s firearm laws, is still coming into focus.
“It’s important to give her credit where she did support some reforms leading up to the 2018 law. But I don’t think it’s clear yet what her vision is on” criminal justice, said state Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who co-chaired the Legislature’s judiciary committee last session. “And I think it’s unclear what state government [as a whole] is going to tackle this session.”
That said, many advocates harbor heightened expectations for the new governor, optimistic that the Democrat will bring a renewed focus on criminal justice. Recent high-profile police killings in Memphis and the governor’s home city of Cambridge have injected new urgency into the debate over police conduct just two years after Massachusetts lawmakers passed a sweeping policing law.
“The governor, as attorney general, demonstrated significant interest in making sure that meaningful protections were put into place to address longstanding injustices in the criminal legal system,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the executive director for Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights. “The question is whether the governor will now pursue legislative and policy changes to implement a community-based vision of policing and law enforcement accountability.”
Healey has offered a few hints of policies she may prioritize. She told the Globe she supports efforts to strengthen criminal penalties for so-called revenge pornography to protect people from harassment and abuse. She supports bills to make phone calls from prison free and said she generally supports a movement to stop new construction of prison and jail infrastructure. She stopped short, however, of backing legislation to do so, citing the need for funding to rehabilitate existing facilities in need of repair.
When asked, she declined to explicitly say whether she supports a bill to raise the age at which someone becomes subject to the adult criminal justice system from 18 to 21. She said she supports “guardrails” around controversial facial recognition software but did not commit to a blanket ban, a step that some progressives and civil liberties groups have called for.
“I appreciate the work that’s been done by the Legislature over the years on substantial criminal justice reform and through our agencies within the administration,” Healey told reporters last week. “We’re going to work to make sure that that is implemented, but criminal justice of course remains something I’m very much passionate about.”
Still, some advocates say Healey’s past stances on some criminal justice issues give them pause.
They point to Healey’s previous support for expanding the reach of the state’s wiretap law, her history of opposition to legalizing marijuana — she has since said her concerns were “unnecessary” — and her resistance to a piece of the police reform bill that would have banned the use of facial recognition software.
“I am hoping we can get some reform-minded people in there, so we can make the changes that need to happen. The entire system, the entire culture, everything needs to be completely overhauled,” said Caroline Bays, board chair of Progressive Massachusetts. “This is a new job for her, this is a fresh start.”
But there is also a cautious optimism from those who see Healey’s potential to make headway on legislative and policy changes around the issue. Carol Rose, executive director of ACLU Massachusetts, said she believes Healey’s new position offers her a “broader lens.”
“She has the bona fides to push forward these reforms that will keep all of us safer,” Rose said.
Healey has backed some progressive policies. She was an advocate for parts of the 2020 police reform bill that banned chokeholds, limited use of force, and increased accountability for police misconduct.
She advocated for the elimination of mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses and supported the repeal of the mandatory suspension of a person’s driver’s license after a drug conviction.
And Healey’s background as attorney general — she’s the first former AG to be elected governor in more than 70 years — offers hope to those on Beacon Hill that other issues will finally come into greater focus.
State Representatives Bud Williams and Carlos González, both Springfield Democrats, said the state needs to find better ways to address gun violence, particularly in urban centers regularly shaken by it. Williams, who also chairs the Legislature’s Black and Latino caucus, said he’s interested in tightening penalties on repeat gun offenders. González expects Healey to be “more open” to discussions about addressing urban crime because of her time as attorney general.
“We have the expectation that public safety, while it has not been discussed [publicly], is one of the priorities,” he said.
As a candidate, Healey pledged “to move to pardon” those with state convictions for simple marijuana possession, an idea modeled after President Biden’s efforts. But when, or how, she plans to accomplish that goal is unclear. Williams said he’s privately urged the governor to instead consider embracing legislation that would automatically expunge those convictions.
“Absolutely, no, pardoning doesn’t work,” said Williams, arguing that any pardons also require the approval of the Governor’s Council, meaning it’s “not automatic.”
“I’ve talked to her about this,” he said. “It’s not illegal anymore. Expunge it, wipe it clean.”
Lawmakers are also keen to understand how the Department of Correction, now under Healey’s direction, will approach medical parole after rarely utilizing that authority under Baker. Leaders of the Legislature’s criminal justice reform caucus say they’re closely watching what funding Healey seeks for the jails and prisons, where funding under Baker often rose even while the population dropped.
“We would really love to have that conversation with the governor and her team, to be able to work together,” said state Representative Mary Keefe, a Worcester Democrat and co-chair of the caucus. “For now, we don’t really know what she’s thinking — I don’t anyway — about the DOC and how to move it forward. But I think we’ll find out pretty quickly.”
Samantha J. Gross can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @samanthajgross. Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.