Several Massachusetts advocacy groups are praising the sweeping criminal justice bill the state Senate is poised to vote on this week and panning an effort by nine Massachusetts district attorneys to scuttle major parts of the legislation.
The groups — including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts; the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which includes some 40 churches, synagogues, mosques, and community organizations; and the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency — say the wide-ranging legislation is “a big step in the right direction.”
They also knocked a letter released by top prosecutors Monday. Nine of the state’s 11 DAs said that, overall, the Senate bill would undermine fair and equal justice, mostly ignores the interests of victims, and puts at risk “the undeniable strides and unparalleled success of Massachusetts’ approach to public safety and criminal justice.”
But the advocates have a different view.
They say the DAs’ action “fits a familiar pattern of Massachusetts prosecutors prioritizing their own power over public safety and fairness. These district attorneys claim that Massachusetts is a criminal justice success story. The truth is, over the last three decades, incarceration has risen at a faster rate in Massachusetts than in the nation overall. Tough on crime policies have driven incarceration rates up to exceptionally high levels in communities of color, and the failed ‘war on drugs’ continues to exacerbate the opioid crisis across the Commonwealth.”
The Senate bill is meant to pare the number of people in the criminal justice system. Among its hundreds of sections, the legislation would:
■ repeal mandatory minimum sentences for several drug offenses — including cocaine trafficking and dealing drugs such as heroin within 300 feet of a school — and it would make those changes retroactive, allowing hundreds of drug dealers the opportunity to get out of prison early;
■ 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 in secret in front of a juvenile court judge;
■ rewrite the state’s statutory rape law, legalizing consensual sex between youth close in age, an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old, for example.
Governor Charlie Baker has expressed reticence with some parts of the Senate bill.