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Deal struck on driver’s licenses for drug offenders

The state Legislature is set to repeal a 27-year-old law requiring a driver’s license suspension for those convicted of drug crimes, such as possession, that have nothing to do with driving.

The final vote could come as soon as next week, and Governor Charlie Baker has signaled he will sign the measure.

Advocates say the suspensions have been a major impediment for former offenders trying to rebuild their lives. Without a license, it can be difficult to find work, take children to day care, and get to drug-treatment programs.

“We are so excited about this,” said Cassandra Bensahih, director of the Worcester-based Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement. “Once you pay your debt [to society] and you come out of prison, you need an opportunity to move forward. It’s a fresh start.”


The legislation is the opening salvo in a larger effort to overhaul a criminal justice system still marbled with the tough-on-crime provisions of the 1980s and 1990s.

The driver’s license effort attracted broad support from law enforcement, including Attorney General Maura Healey and the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association. But other proposed measures, like repealing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, face stiffer opposition.

The Senate voted in September to repeal the driver’s license suspensions, and the House did the same in January. But the House elected to keep suspensions in place for the most serious drug offenders: traffickers.

House negotiators were able to keep the drug trafficker carve-out in the final bill, which emerged from a House-Senate conference committee Tuesday.

Representative William M. Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat who served on the conference committee, said lawmakers didn’t want to leave the impression that they were “providing relief for drug traffickers,” when the broader intent was to help lower-level drug offenders move on with their lives.

Senator Harriette L. Chandler, the Worcester Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said she understood why the House had pushed for the change.


“We’re so deeply concerned, as we should be, about the opiate problems and the substance abuse issues that we’re dealing with, that we certainly don’t want traffickers to appear to be getting . . . a deal,” she said.

Chandler said traffickers make up a relatively small slice of those who have their licenses suspended under the current law. And the bill set for passage next week would allow traffickers to apply for so-called “hardship licenses,” which would allow them to drive to work or school.

Former governor Michael Dukakis signed the 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 the 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.

Once a suspension runs its course, ex-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 jail time.

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