Seeking to crack down on the suppliers behind the state’s lethal opioid crisis, Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday filed a broad legislative package that would create a new manslaughter charge for drug dealers whose product causes a death.
Under Baker’s plan, dealers would face a mandatory minimum of five years for selling any drugs that result in a fatality.
“When illegal drug distribution causes a death, laws that were designed to punish the act are inadequate to recognize the seriousness of the resulting harm,” Baker wrote in a letter to state lawmakers in support of the legislation. “In order to ensure that accountability, this legislation establishes enhanced penalties that directly target those who cause death by illegally selling drugs.”
Nearly 2,000 people were believed to have died from opioid overdoses in Massachusetts in 2016. The drug has caused the deaths of 978 people in the first half of 2017, a 5 percent drop from the same span last year.
The new manslaughter charge is among several proposals aimed at curbing the state’s opioid epidemic, some of which mirror legislation pending before state lawmakers. Baker, state officials, police chiefs, and prosecutors announced the plan Wednesday at a news conference at the Gavin Foundation’s Devine Recovery Center in South Boston.
“As society keeps seeing evolving public safety threats like dangerous drugs fueling the opioid epidemic and gang violence in our communities, it is critical that our laws give law enforcement the appropriate tools and enforcement measures to keep everyone safe,” Baker said.
Baker said his proposal would hold drug dealers to the same legal standard as those who kill someone while driving under the influence. Some Massachusetts prosecutors have filed manslaughter and similar charges in drug dealing cases and won convictions, but Baker said the new proposal would establish a standard.
“These are smart solutions to dangerous crimes the people of the Commonwealth face every day,” said Chelsea Police Chief Brian Kyes, president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association.
Baker said he expects the bill will be debated when legislators return from summer recess after Labor Day. But some lawmakers and advocates expressed concerns about aspects of the Baker approach.
State Senator William N. Brownsberger, Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, said he has not taken a position on the bill and acknowledged the manslaughter proposal will be “the most difficult to figure out.”
“If you lost someone to a drug overdose, then it makes a lot of sense to try to get some accountability, but there’s a huge downside,” he said. “We have to think very carefully about the unintended consequences.”
Brownsberger said he wants to make sure that legislation doesn’t discourage people from calling 911 to report an overdose for fear they might face criminal prosecution.
State Representative Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat, said he thinks the bill goes too far.
“How do you know it was that person’s drugs that killed the person?” he said. “I’m not agreeing with that.”
Critics worry that people selling small quantities of drugs to feed an addiction might end up in jail.
“Incarceration of people with drug addiction continues to scar them and not help the problem,” said Lew Finfer, a spokesman for Jobs Not Jails, a coalition of labor, community, and religious groups pushing for an overhaul of criminal laws. “We need to make sure we’re doing it right; not adding to mass incarceration.”
Maryanne Frangules, executive director of the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, shared similar concerns.
“Our feeling on mandatory minimums is you need to have the ability to look at mitigating circumstances,” Frangules said. “We don’t want carfentanil and people making this stuff out there, but I’m not sure mandatory minimums is the answer.”
Defense attorneys praised Baker’s efforts to tackle the opioid crisis but worried that mandatory minimum sentences could wind up criminalizing drug addiction.
“The intent is good,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel to the Massachusetts Bar Association. “We hope this is targeted more to actual traffickers, instead of low-level dealers who are addicts themselves.”
Other states that have similar legislation include New Hampshire and Florida. In New York, prosecutors have used similar strategies. And legislators in Maine and Maryland are also considering it.
The Baker bill would also link state drug classifications, except for marijuana, to federal standards to allow law enforcement and prosecutors to respond quickly to the influx of new synthetic drugs like carfentanil.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, did not address the manslaughter proposal, but lauded Baker’s plan to make murder-for-hire a felony, punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison.
The proposal also seeks to address a loophole in the state’s witness protection laws to cover retaliation against a witness before and after trial. It would also extend protection services to a witness’s family, court staff, and law enforcement.
“This bill contains many common sense changes which provide that those who help to ensure the public safety through their participation in the criminal justice process, as well as their loved ones, are protected from retaliation even when the case is over,” Ryan said in a statement.
Aretha Mauge’s son, Devonte Mauge-Franklin, 16, was stabbed to death on an MBTA bus in 2008. She said there were many people who witnessed her son’s murder, but no one stepped forward. No arrests have been made in his death.
“We need more support for people to come out,” she said. “We have to protect our witnesses, if we don’t our stuff will go unsolved.”