Mass. Legislature reveals final criminal justice package
Top Massachusetts lawmakers unveiled sweeping legislation Friday that aims to reduce the number of people ensnared in the criminal justice system and keep young offenders out of court.
The bill, a compromise between the Senate and House, is the culmination of a years-long effort to shift the balance away from the harsh punishments that came out of the anticrime efforts of the 1990s — measures that critics say have disproportionately affected poor and minority defendants.
“The agreement that we’ve reached today is about lifting people up instead of locking them up. It’s about cutting the chains that hold people down when they’re trying to get back up on their feet. And it is about better protecting the public from drugs and guns,” said Senator William N. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat and coauthor of the legislation.
The bill would pare the fines and fees required of people who commit crimes and give those who have served their time a clearer path back to society by strengthening laws that seal and expunge old convictions. It would also mandate the state notify people about their upcoming court dates — via text and e-mail, for example — so they don’t fall into a spiral of accumulating penalties for not showing up.
“Other bills made small dents,” said Senator Cynthia S. Creem, a Newton Democrat and one of the bill’s negotiators. “And this made a big bang.”
The legislation can’t be amended and faces an up-or-down vote in each chamber. While it is expected to pass both the Democratic-controlled House and Senate, Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, has not taken a position on it; a Baker spokeswoman said he will carefully review it.
The overall bill was praised by reform advocates, including Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz of Jamaica Plain, who called it “a massive and joyful turning point for our state.”
Lew Finfer, a spokesperson for the Jobs Not Jails Coalition, called it “a very big step forward toward more justice for all.”
Whether it faces dramatic resistance, including from law enforcement, remains to be seen. Many of the state’s district attorneys had voiced fierce opposition to several provisions during the legislative process, including a proposal that was ultimately included to forbid parents from testifying against their minor children.
For example, under the bill, a mother who saw her 17-year-old son kill someone couldn’t testify in court against him even if she wanted to. The only exception would be when the victim is a family member and resides in the household.
House majority leader Ronald Mariano, who helped negotiate the final bill, explained a rationale for the provision.
“I really believe that there are other ways to gather evidence, and there are other ways to make convictions,” he said. “You start pitting family members against each other, no matter how dysfunctional the family, I think you’ve ruined that family forever.”
The legislation also would remove juvenile court jurisdiction over children aged 7 through 11, so children that age would no longer face any criminal sanctions, even for murder.
Advocates who pushed for those provisions have said they are meant to shelter young children from the trauma of going to court, and ensure kids feel safe asking a parent for help and parents don’t feel pressured to testify against their son or daughter.
In a scorching rebuke in October, several district attorneys said the juvenile court system is capable of providing younger children who are charged the help and support they need. And the prosecutors said that a near-universal prohibition on parents testifying against their children “does grave harm to victims of crime whose pursuit of justice will be stymied for want of crucial evidence.”
But on Friday, the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association declined to weigh in. Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley struck a conciliatory tone, saying in a statement, “A complete analysis of the bill will take some time, but it clearly reflects some thoughtful work and compromise.”
Several provisions the district attorneys opposed in earlier versions are not in the final compromise. And DAs are likely to cheer other aspects of Friday’s legislation.
This bill would make it easier to prosecute traffickers of fentanyl, the ultrapowerful opioid that is often mixed into heroin and plays an increasingly deadly role in Massachusetts’ overdose crisis. That’s a change DAs have long been pressing the Legislature to enact. And Baker urged lawmakers to make that change just this week.
Representative Claire D. Cronin, the House chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said the bill also targets the deadly opioid carfentanil, calling it the “strongest carfentanil law in the country.” The legislation would establish it as a Class A drug and create a prison term of 3½ to 20 years for anyone convicted of trafficking.
The legislation also raises the threshold for a felony larceny conviction.
Under current law, people convicted of stealing cash or goods worth more than $250 — say, a smartphone — are felons, subject to up to five years in state prison and diminished education and job prospects once they’ve done their time.
That’s a lower monetary bar than almost every other state. The bill would raise the threshold to $1,200, a move advocates say is aimed at helping people who have made a mistake get back on their feet more quickly.
Retailers, however, railed against the change. Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said it would incentivize theft by removing the harsher penalty.
“This represents a huge raise for thieves and criminals,” he said. “In the end, honest consumers will pay for less deterrence for larceny.”
The package would also mandate new oversight for those in solitary confinement in state prison, including a new nine-person committee appointed by the governor that would scrutinize data about how solitary is used.
Under current law, prisoners at any state facility can be sentenced by corrections officials to up to 10 years in the state’s toughest solitary, the Departmental Disciplinary Unit in the Walpole prison, where they are housed in a 12-foot-by-7-foot cell and are entitled to five hours a week of outdoor recreation.
Legislative leaders voiced support for the package, including House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who called it a “workable and comprehensive approach to criminal justice reform.” The bill is expected to first surface for a vote in the Senate in early April.
“Today’s agreement is a significant step forward for social and economic justice, and toward ending the cycles of incarceration that remain far too prevalent in our Commonwealth,” said Senator Karen E. Spilka, who this week claimed enough votes to become the next Senate president.
During the months-long process of negotiation between the House and Senate, the legislation lost many of its most controversial provisions, including one to legalize sex between young teens close in age, and another to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 19, the highest in the nation. The elimination of multiple other mandatory minimum sentences, pushed strongly by reform advocates, also was not included in the final bill.
In 2015, Massachusetts had the second-lowest imprisonment rate of any state, with 179 sentenced prisoners for every 100,000 people, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.