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Mass. House passes its most sweeping crime bill in years

Associated Press/file

The Massachusetts House on Tuesday passed, on a 144-9 vote, its most sweeping criminal justice bill in years, aimed at reducing recidivism by paring back mandatory-minimum sentences and making it easier for some convicts to obtain employment and housing, but also cracking down on opioid trafficking.

Meeting late into the evening, House lawmakers approved a massive bill that is still not as dramatic as the measure that cleared the Senate last month. For instance, the more progressive Senate voted to legalize sex between teens close in age and to boost the age of criminal responsibility to 19. The House did not include these provisions in its bill.


In the coming weeks, the two Democrat-dominated bodies will appoint negotiating committees aimed at reconciling differences and sending a compromise to Republican Governor Charlie Baker, who has criticized elements of the Senate plan.

Republicans on Tuesday ripped Democratic leaders’ tamping down of a proposal to toughen penalties for drug dealers whose wares lead to fatal overdoses, saying the addiction crisis required harsher crackdowns.

The House bill, while not as progressive on many fronts as the Senate version, nonetheless reflects a sharp turn among policy makers on criminal justice. With Baker, the Senate, and now the House weighing in, criminal justice policy has marked arguably the largest joint effort of the two-year session.

“I think the bill is a big step forward, and it includes changes that quite frankly when we started we didn’t expect to see,” said state Representative Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat.

House leaders said that by stripping away mandatory-minimum sentences for some drug offenses, including some involving cocaine and methamphetamine, they could provide an easier path back to productive society for some convicts. Those provisions loosely jibe with the Senate’s template.

Also similar to the Senate, the House is looking to expunge criminal records for many offenders, including those who committed crimes when they were juveniles or whose offenses are no longer crimes under state law. That measure has grown particularly salient due to voters’ decision last year to legalize recreational marijuana in Massachusetts.


The measure that was on the floor Tuesday, circulated last week by House leaders, was stricter on trafficking of fentanyl and carfentanil than the Senate proposal. It’s a felony to traffic 10 net grams or more of fentanyl, but the House leadership’s draft of the bill would extend that to include 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.

The aim, members said, is to curtail an addiction crisis that claimed roughly 1,470 lives from January through September of this year, according to a state report released this week. Those figures represented a decrease of 10 percent from the same period in 2016.

In another contrast with the Senate, the House draft seeks to stiffen penalties for habitual drunk drivers by creating escalating mandatory-minimum sentences for sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and subsequent offenses. Current law carries specific penalties up to the fifth offense, which results in a two-year mandatory minimum and the lifetime loss of a driver’s license — with additional offenses holding the same penalties.

The House on Monday unanimously passed a narrower bill Baker filed in February that would permit some convicts serving mandatory-minimum sentences to earn early releases by participating in recidivism-reduction programs.


After formally starting debate on its own bill Monday evening, but not making a great deal of progress, the House on Tuesday afternoon continued processing some of the 212 amendments members had filed.

The debate turned emotional after 8 p.m. when Republicans assailed House leaders’ efforts to further study – often a death knell for an amendment — a proposal they said would apply a minimum sentence of five years and up to life to some dealers whose drugs cause overdose deaths.

Several members spoke about family members and constituents who had either died from drugs or were struggling with addiction.

“These drug dealers ought to be put behind bars forever, because they are killing our families, and they know what they’re doing,” said state Representative James Lyons, an Andover Republican.

Democrats countered that prosecutors currently have the ability to seek life sentences for such crimes and said the floor of the House was not the appropriate venue to impose such penalties.

The plan to send the amendment to study passed on a 110-41 vote, drawing some Democratic support.

Leaders ruled that a proposal sponsored by House minority leader Bradley Jones to expand law enforcement officials’ ability to use wiretaps, under “strict judicial supervision,” was beyond the scope of the bill — a ruling the North Reading Republican criticized.

One amendment that passed and was included in the House bill would provide a booklet to those being released from incarceration, explaining the rules and rights around their criminal offender record information (CORI).


Another amendment that won approval, unanimously, decrees that prisoners in Department of Correction facilities and county houses of correction would pay the same rates for telephone services charged for comparable residential phone use.

State Representative Natalie Higgins, a freshman Leominster Democrat, spoke on the floor about her own experience as a survivor of sexual assault in a speech in favor of an amendment filed by Jones aimed at strengthening the state’s tracking of rape kits. The amendment passed unanimously.

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