In harsh letter, DAs pan Senate’s criminal justice proposal
In a blistering public rebuke, nine of Massachusetts’ 11 district attorneys came out Monday against major parts of the state Senate’s sweeping criminal justice bill, which is aimed at reducing the number of people caught in the system.
In a six-page letter that comes days before the chamber is set to take up the legislation, top law enforcement officials railed against what is a Senate priority.
Although they praise some aspects of the bill, overall it “undermines the cause and pursuit of fair and equal justice for all, largely ignores the interests of victims of crime, and puts at risk the undeniable strides and unparalleled success of Massachusetts’ approach to public safety and criminal justice for at least the last 25 years,” the DAs wrote.
The letter also marks a break among the top prosecutors, with the signatures of Northwestern District Attorney David E. Sullivan and Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan — who is the chief law enforcement official of the state’s most populous county — notably absent.
The nine DAs are against eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes such as trafficking up to 100 grams of cocaine — one proposal in the legislation scheduled for a Thursday vote in the Senate. And they expressed particularly vociferous opposition to the part of the bill that would make those changes retroactive, allowing hundreds of drug dealers the opportunity to get out of prison early.
“Where exactly are the residents eager for violent drug traffickers to be returned to their neighborhoods?” they wrote.
Advocates and senators say mandatory minimums are a failed tactic from the war on drugs, one that has unnecessarily ensnared generations of people, particularly from communities of color, in the criminal justice system. And making the repeal of certain drug mandatory minimums retroactive is important for equity, they say.
The DAs energetically oppose the provision that would raise the age of criminal majority to 19, meaning all but the most serious offenses committed by 18-year-olds would likely be adjudicated confidentially in front of a juvenile court judge.
Advocates and Senate leaders say scientific research shows young people’s brains keep maturing into their 20s, and it is appropriate for the law to acknowledge that evolution. They say it’s just common sense to treat all high school kids the same way, instead of punishing an 18-year-old much more harshly than a 17-year-old for the same crime.
But the DAs wrote that “adopting a law that enables anyone to declare that ‘I am not responsible for my actions, my brain is!’ is something no rational parent would accept, and creates a slippery slope.”
The DAs vehemently oppose rewriting the state’s statutory rape law, which currently makes sex with anyone under 16 against the law. The bill would legalize consensual sex between teens close in age — an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old, or a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old, for example. That provision is “both unnecessary and dangerous, especially to girls and young women,” the nine DAs wrote.
But advocates say a so-called Romeo-and-Juliet law is sensible, and criminalizing the sexual contact young people inevitably have with each other is not the best way to respond to it.
Another provision backed by juvenile advocates would forbid parents from testifying against their children in almost all criminal and juvenile delinquency matters, if the kids are under 18. Proponents say they want to protect the parent-child relationship, make certain kids feel safe in asking a parent for help, and ensure parents cannot be pressured into testifying against their children. They emphasize there is an exception in the language for when the victim is a family member and resides in the household.
But the prosecutors think the parent-child privilege part of the bill is a terrible idea. It “undercuts parental judgment. It also does grave harm to victims of crime whose pursuit of justice will be stymied for want of crucial evidence,” they write.
There are aspects of the Senate bill the prosecutors support, or back in theory but say goes a bit too far.
For example, the bill would reduce driver’s license suspensions for nondriving events, such as missing a court appearance. In the letter, the DAs say they are generally supportive of such efforts if what’s being eliminated is ineffective or counterproductive.
They also back the idea of raising the monetary threshold for when people convicted of stealing cash or goods are felons, but disagree with the Senate on how much it should be changed.
Pete Wilson, a spokesman for Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, said Rosenberg “will review the district attorneys’ letter and discuss it with members and stakeholders.”
Attorney General Maura Healey, who had praised an earlier version of the bill, “remains hopeful that a consensus can be reached,” her spokeswoman said late Monday.
Those who signed the letter were: Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey, Essex District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett, Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless, Bristol District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn III, Hampden District Attorney Anthony D. Gulluni, Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr., and Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz.
A spokeswoman for Ryan, one of the two DAs who didn’t sign the letter, said the prosecutor has been “actively engaged in the dialogue regarding criminal justice reform and has reached different conclusions about some of the bill’s provisions than are reflected in this letter.”
Sullivan, the other DA who didn’t sign the letter, said in an e-mail he supports major aspects of the Senate bill such as raising the age of criminal majority to 19, and putting in place a so-called Romeo-and-Juliet law.
“I feel that changes need to be made to existing laws so consensual sexual relations involving 14- and 15-year-olds are no longer subject to draconian criminal sanctions, including sex offender registry,” he said.