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    Mass. House leaders look to scale back Senate crime bill

    David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File

    House leaders on Monday moved to rebuff a Senate effort to legalize sex between teens who are close in age and raise the age of criminal responsibility to 19, releasing a pared-down version of the dramatic overhaul of the state’s criminal system that passed the Senate last month.

    The House bill, like the Senate’s, would allow courts to expunge criminal records in many cases, including juvenile transgressions and those in which the offense is no longer a crime under state law — a key provision due to the state’s recent legalization of recreational marijuana.

    Outlined by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and top deputies on Monday, the House version represents a far less sweeping attempt at rewriting criminal justice laws than the Senate bill.


    For instance, the House stopped short of the Senate’s effort to undo mandatory minimum sentences, which included the prospect for well-behaved prisoners to serve less than their minimum sentences. While both bills do away with some of these minimums, the House “drew the line” at eliminating them for drug traffickers, said House Judiciary Committee chairwoman Claire Cronin, the bill’s primary author. The Senate would eliminate them for those convicted of trafficking less than 100 grams of cocaine.

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    The bill could pass as early as next week and then would be negotiated by the two chambers. House leaders said their bill, while less far-reaching and still subject to amendment on the floor, would still help some criminal offenders transition back to productivity.

    “If people are truly willing to turn their lives around after serving time, they are going to have those opportunities,” said House Ways and Means chairman Jeffrey Sanchez.

    The House bill, the Jamaica Plain Democrat said, would “switch our criminal justice system that has been unjust to many into a system that looks at individuals.”

    The measure would also stiffen penalties for driving under the influence by creating escalating penalties for sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and subsequent offenses. Current state law specifies penalties up to the fifth offense, which results in a mandatory minimum sentence of two years and the lifetime loss of a license. Subsequent offenses carry the same minimum.


    The legislation mandates that district attorneys create pre-arraignment diversion programs for military veterans and those coping with substance abuse or mental illness — unlike the Senate, which did not carve out diversion programs for veterans.

    The bill also reduces the amount of time after which a person’s criminal record can be sealed — from 10 years to seven years for a felony, and from five years to three years for a misdemeanor. House officials said this would assist those convicted of a crime in obtaining jobs and housing.

    House leaders also proposed eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, including cocaine and methamphetamine, roughly similar to the Senate-passed legislation.

    Unlike the Senate bill, the House leadership draft does not change laws about sex between teens who are close in age.

    In an e-mail, Cronin said the “issue requires a more in-depth review and further conversations.” She added that the “under-age sexual consent provision” did not “reflect the priorities of the membership.”


    Advocates said they were disappointed with that decision.

    “Our concern is right now, with the existing law, that making it illegal actually discourages kids from talking to adults like school nurses or religious leaders, because they’re mandatory reporters,” said Naoka Carey, executive director at Citizens for Juvenile Justice, a Boston-based advocacy group. “We think it’s better for kids and their safety to be able to have that open dialogue.”

    Another difference is that the measure does not boost the age of criminal majority from 18 to one day shy of 19, as the Senate proposal does.

    The House draft is tougher on trafficking of fentanyl and carfentanil than the Senate-passed version. Under the measure released Monday, the law making it a felony to traffic 10 net grams or more of fentanyl would now also be applied to any 10-gram mixture with fentanyl in it and add a minimum penalty of 3½ years.

    The Senate version uses a threshold of an 18-gram mixture that would result in the mandatory minimum.

    If the fentanyl and carfentanil provisions in the House plan become law, said House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano, “Anyone selling it, and is caught selling it, is going away, and I think that’s the way it should be. Just the tiniest amount is killing us.”

    Fentanyl is an opioid similar to heroin but 50 to 100 times more potent, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Carfentanil is a far more potent analog, used as a sedative for large animals such as moose. State Police said their crime lab had identified 12 samples of carfentanil this year from seizures in eight cities and towns.

    “We want to send a very clear and strong message, that we’re not going to allow you to keep killing people,” Mariano added.

    The state, Cronin said, is mired “in a public health crisis like we have never faced before” with opioid drug addiction.

    “This is a whole new ballgame for all of us,” the Easton Democrat said.

    Roderick L. Ireland, the former Supreme Judicial Court chief justice who advised House leaders on the bill, called it “a reform plan for the real world.”

    Governor Charlie Baker said last week that he had “very significant concern” with the Senate version of the bill.

    Baker, a spokeswoman said, is “opposed to letting the convicted drug dealers out of prison early and maintains that in the midst of [a] deadly opioid epidemic, the criminal justice debate must include consideration of harsher penalties for heroin and fentanyl dealers that knowingly take someone’s life.”

    Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JOSreports.