Advocates, a key district attorney, and more than a dozen state senators rallied Thursday in support of a wide-ranging criminal justice bill aimed at paring the number of people ensnared in the criminal justice system.
The show of political muscle comes ahead of an expected Senate vote this month on the controversial bill, aspects of which are opposed by top law enforcement officials, and as the more conservative House of Representatives is working on its own version of criminal justice legislation.
“We need to fight like hell for this bill,” said state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat. “To protect it, to advance it, and we should not accept anything less!”
Senator John F. Keenan, a Quincy Democrat, said for too long there has been too wide a gap “between what we think is right and how our criminal justice system is operated. . . . With this legislation, we take a giant step toward narrowing that gap.”
The legislation, which Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg said was a decade in the making and would “sweep out the cobwebs from the system,” aims to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for several drug offenses — 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.
The bill would raise the age of criminal majority to 19, the highest in the country, meaning all but the most serious offenses committed by 18-year-olds would probably be adjudicated confidentially in front of a juvenile court judge.
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 if the bill becomes law. (Currently, having sex with anyone under 16 is illegal.)
And, among scores of other changes, the legislation would diminish the procession of fees, fines, and license suspensions for people in the criminal justice system.
Given that several prosecutors have expressed concern with aspects of the bill, the presence of Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan, the top law enforcement official in the state’s most populous county, at the rally was notable.
Ryan told the crowd of about 200 she supports many of the principles in the bill. And the longtime prosecutor praised the process.
“We have had honest disagreement. We have not fallen for knee-jerk reactions that are born of fear or revenge,” she said.
Other DAs have earlier expressed concern over the legislation. 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.”
But advocates lauded the legislation, even as they expressed concern it is not wide-reaching enough on issues such as repealing mandatory minimum sentences.
A representative from the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which includes more than 40 churches, synagogues, mosques, and community organizations, spoke in favor of the bill at the rally. The organization said it “supports positive reforms” in the Senate legislation.
But in a statement, GBIO’s Beverly Williams said “some aspects of the bill do not go nearly far enough.”Joshua Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.