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State Senate leaders call for criminal justice overhaul

State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, authored an omnibus bill encompassing many of the proposed changes.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2013

Senate leaders are pressing for some of the most substantial changes to the state’s criminal justice system in decades, part of a national reconsideration of a “tough on crime” approach that swept the country in the 1980s and 1990s.

The final shape of the effort is still coming into view. But lawmakers are weighing a repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders and an overhaul of the state’s bail procedures, among other measures.

One proposal would plow the savings from a reduced prison population into job training programs in an approach known as “justice reinvestment.”

It is unclear whether Governor Charlie Baker or House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo will ultimately support the proposed overhaul; neither has made criminal justice reform a top priority.


But the speaker called it “a conversation worth having” in a statement to the Globe.

The governor was cooler, saying in a statement that “Massachusetts should be proud of the fact that it has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the United States.” Still, he said, he is looking forward to the legislative debate.

The Senate push comes amid growing concern about the ballooning financial and social costs of incarceration.

Dozens of states have moved to overhaul their criminal justice systems, with support for the idea coming from across the political spectrum. Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz and the conservative billionaire Koch brothers are backing changes.

And the Massachusetts Bar Association and Attorney General Maura Healey — a liberal Democrat — have embraced much of the state’s criminal justice reform agenda.

“All of these things are converging to make this possible in a way that it didn’t feel possible in years past,” said Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who authored an omnibus bill encompassing many of the proposed changes.

The debate over the criminal justice changes will kick off Tuesday with a hearing expected to draw busloads of advocates from Springfield, Worcester, and Fall River.


Among those planning to testify: Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley and the state’s top judge, Ralph D. Gants.

The pair have emerged as the leading antagonists in a fight over mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.

Gants, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, said in his first State of the Judiciary speech last fall that the state has to find better ways to treat addicts than putting them in jail.

“To those who favor the status quo in the so-called war on drugs, I ask: How well is the status quo working?” he said.

Conley counters that mandatory minimums are an important crime-fighting tool, netting hundreds of violent offenders.

But the struggle is not just about policy.

It is also, in part, about who gets to determine how long a convict goes to jail — judges or district attorneys.

At the moment, prosecutors who charge suspects with crimes that carry mandatory minimums effectively choose the length of prison sentences. Gants, at a March conference, argued district attorneys simply don’t want to relinquish that authority to judges.

But Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz, in an interview with The Boston Globe, rejected that charge.

And he argued that prosecutors had made judicious use of their authority.

State data show that 450 of the roughly 39,000 convicts in the fiscal year ended in mid-2013, or about 1 percent, were convicted for mandatory minimum drug offenses.


“I think we’re doing it smart,” said Cruz. “I don’t think we’re doing it haphazardly.”

Nationwide, there are roughly 2.3 million people in state and federal prisons and local jails. And the country’s incarceration rate has increased fivefold since 1970.

Crime has dropped dramatically in that period. But it’s unclear if the surge in the prison population played a substantial role.

Some research suggests it accounted for up to one-third of the drop in the 1990s.

But the most recent major study, from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, found that it “had relatively little to do with the crime decline.”

Whatever its effect on crime, incarceration has led to mounting prison costs and stirred concern about impacts on low-income communities.

Eight years ago, Texas lawmakers steered hundreds of millions of dollars away from prisons and into drug treatment programs.

In 2009, Rhode Island repealed mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. And last month, the Republican governors of Nebraska and Alabama signed substantial criminal justice overhauls into law.

Many of the reforms emerged from a “justice reinvestment” process, undertaken by 33 states, in which a state’s political and judicial leadership coalesce around a legislative package aimed at cutting corrections costs and pouring some of the savings into programs designed to curb recidivism.

The Council on State Governments has provided technical assistance in 21 justice reinvestment states.

And Senate president Stanley C. Rosenberg is pushing to bring the group to Massachusetts.


DeLeo, the speaker, said in a statement that he is “interested” in inviting the council.

But Baker has not indicated if he will back the effort. The council requires full buy-in from a state’s political and judicial leadership.

The governor, if hesitant to embrace wide-ranging criminal justice reform, is voicing support for some modifications.

In his statement Monday, he said the state needs to improve its system for easing former convicts back into society. And he added that “we need more pathways to treatment for those who are dealing with drug and substance abuse issues.”

Lawmakers are also advocating for changes of their own. One measure would steer the courts away from a cash bail system that disadvantages low-income defendants and toward more bail-free, conditional release.

Another bill would repeal a law requiring the suspension of driver’s licenses for up to five years for those guilty of drug crimes unrelated to the operation of a vehicle.

Healey, the attorney general, backs the driver’s license bill. And in a break with her predecessor, Martha Coakley, she supports the elimination of mandatory minimums for certain drug crimes.

In written testimony she submitted to the Legislature’s judiciary committee Monday, Healey cited the state’s opioid crisis and said “history shows we cannot incarcerate our way out of this public health crisis.”

Healey campaigned on repealing mandatory minimums. But there is some evidence the push is winning adherents among more centrist Democrats.

House majority leader Ronald Mariano, a Quincy Democrat who once supported minimums, says he is not as convinced of their value as he once was.


“I just know from my own personal experience,” he said. “It’s been a little frustrating to watch and listen to some of the stories of folks that do extensive time for nonviolent crimes.”

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.