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Debate over criminal justice reform heats up

John Tlumacki/Globe staff

By Globe Staff 

Lawmakers are bracing for a sharp debate in coming weeks over how the Legislature ought to reform the state’s criminal justice system, as advocates and elected officials grapple to find the right balance between punishment and rehabilitation.

Votes in both the House and Senate on major pieces of legislation years in the making are expected before Thanksgiving.

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A key district attorney has expressed support for aspects of a wide-ranging Senate plan designed to pare the number of people ensnared in the criminal justice system, while a Boston state senator is taking issue with other law enforcement officials who are pooh-poohing the legislation.

And a socially conservative group is slamming a portion of the bill that legalizes consensual sex between young people close in age.

Last week, Senate leaders released their proposal, which would repeal mandatory minimum sentences for several drug offences — including cocaine distribution and dealing drugs like heroin within 300 feet of a school — giving judges and parole board members much wider discretion on incarceration.

That prompted tempered praise from advocates like the state American Civil Liberties Union, with concern that the bill didn’t go far enough: They want to repeal all mandatory minimum drug sentences from the law books because they say the evidence shows they don’t work. Meanwhile some prosecutors, like Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, reacted with worry about “making it easier on people who sell drugs in the midst of this opioid crisis we’re in.”

Now, Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan, the top law enforcement official in the state’s most populous county, is backing the thrust of the bill.

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“I support many of the principles reflected in the Senate criminal justice reform legislation,” she said in a statement. “I support the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent, low-level drug offenses that do not include distribution of opioids or distribution to minors.”

She said she also backs parts of the bill that would end driver’s license suspension for nondriving events like missing a court appearance, waive certain fees for the very poor, and raise the threshold for when stealing is a felony.

(People convicted in Massachusetts of stealing cash or goods worth more than $250 — say, a smartphone — are felons, subject to up to five years in state prison and diminished education and job prospects once they’ve done their time. But in almost every other state, people have to steal considerably more to face such serious consequences.)

State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat who represents a diverse swath of Boston, has long been vocal in her desire for the Legislature to move more boldly to toward righting what she sees as the inequities of the criminal justice system.

She has often spoken of seeing entire city blocks where not a single household has been untouched by the criminal justice system, where families are torn apart with a parent or brother or son in jail. So she reacted with dismay to district attorneys who have pushed back against the Senate bill, which she frames as a compromise.

“The knee-jerk reaction of some district attorneys to the Senate reform package smacks of entitlement,” she said in a statement. “They want to talk about accountability? Over the last 40 years, we gave huge power to DAs in sentencing — and with it they oversaw a system that grew into a costly, ineffective, and racist mess.”

O’Keefe, the DA, had a sharp retort: “I hope there will be compromise when the House puts forth a bill which, while offering reform, will better promote public safety and the rights of victims who seem to be forgotten here.”

In a telephone interview, Chang-Diaz pointed to polling data that indicate the vast majority of registered voters back the repeal of some mandatory minimums.

Another controversial part of the bill would rewrite Massachusetts’ statutory rape law.

Consensual sex between young people close in age — a 12-year-old and a 10-year-old, or a 19-year-old and 15-year-old, for example — would no longer be a crime. Currently, having sex with anyone under 16 is against the law.

Advocates say that so-called Romeo and Juliet provision of the bill is common sense.

“This is an effort to come into line with a majority of states, to recognize that young people have sexual contact with one another and criminalizing that contact is not the best way to respond to it,” said Naoka Carey, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a Massachusetts nonprofit. “That is an issue for families, faith communities, public health officials, but we don’t think it’s an issue for police and DAs.”

But Andrew Beckwith, president of the socially conservative Massachusetts Family Institute, decried the proposed change saying legislators ought not to be weakening the law against child rape.

“The current law creates a bright-line rule to protect younger children from sexual abuse and exploitation by requiring a minimum age of 16 before they are assumed capable of giving consent,” he said in an e-mail. “No parent should want this law changed.”

Beckwith argued that making such a change would effectively encourage teens and preteens to engage in sexual activity, even though “they are not experientially or cognitively mature enough to consent to such life-altering behaviors . . . even with someone of a similar age.”

Carey said young people are already engaging in sexual contact and aren’t thinking about the law on the books, which she said is used to disproportionately target boys over girls, gays and lesbians over straight teens, and interracial relationships over ones where both partners are the same race.

The Senate is expected to amend and vote on the wide-ranging package in the coming weeks, while the House, a more conservative chamber, is set to soon release its own bill.

Legislative leaders aim to have both pieces of legislation passed by Thanksgiving. Then, representatives of each branch are expected to begin a hard negotiation about what to send to Governor Charlie Baker.

Already, the House, the Senate, and the governor agree on the idea of giving prisoners more opportunities to earn early release by participating in and completing rehabilitative programs, a key provision of a separate legislative package.

But Baker was coy when asked about broader criminal justice bills that might come his way.

“Having reduced the Commonwealth’s prison population by 1,300, where it remains among the lowest in the nation, the administration will carefully review any additional legislation that reaches the governor’s desk,” said Billy Pitman, Baker’s press secretary.


Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com.