House lawmakers voted unanimously Wednesday to repeal a 27-year-old state law requiring a driver's license suspension for those convicted of drug crimes, such as possession, that have nothing to do with driving.
Advocates say the suspensions have been a major impediment for former offenders trying to rebuild their lives. Without a license, they say, it is difficult to find work, take children to day care, and get to drug-treatment programs.
The Senate approved similar legislation in the fall, and a spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker signaled support for the idea Wednesday, saying the governor is "open to a measure that would reduce or eliminate suspensions for drug offenders."
The driver's license push is the opening salvo in a larger campaign to overhaul the state's criminal justice system. Lawmakers are also weighing a repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and changes to a cash bail system thought to disadvantage low-income defendants.
"I think the criminal justice reform issues are finally starting to gain traction," said Representative Elizabeth Malia, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who pressed for repeal of the driver's license suspension.
But the House debate over her measure may foreshadow a more contentious battle over broader changes to the state's tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s.
A group of Republican lawmakers won approval for an amendment to keep driver's license suspensions in place for those convicted of the most serious drug crime: trafficking.
Representative James J. Lyons Jr., an Andover Republican, said the repeal should "help folks battling this terrible heroin and opiate addiction issue," not "thugs who are selling drugs to our family members."
The House and Senate versions of the bill seem likely to land in a conference committee, where legislators from each chamber would negotiate over the House amendment and other parts of the bill.
Former governor Michael Dukakis signed the driver's license suspension measure into law in 1989, saying he wanted to crack down on "neighborhood drug dealers who cruise the area looking for business and avoiding police." Supporters, at the time, also suggested the penalty could serve as a deterrent to drug use.
The state suspended licenses of 5,431 people convicted of drug crimes in 2014, the length of the suspension varying with the severity of the offense. Possession means a one-year revocation, while trafficking carries a five-year penalty, the maximum under the law.
Once a suspension runs its course, former offenders are required to pay hundreds of dollars in reinstatement fees to get their licenses back. Many who are unable to afford the fees drive without a license, risking more fines and even jail time.
The repeal effort has attracted wide support, with Attorney General Maura Healey, the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, and sheriffs all over the state joining defense lawyers and advocates for former offenders in calling for change.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said in a statement that "we must seize every opportunity possible to help residents reintegrate into society, find fulfilling jobs, and support their families."