COMMITTEE POLL COULD SET BRANCHES ON PATH TOWARD JUSTICE REFORM
By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, SEPT. 28, 2017....The House and Senate appear poised to go their separate ways on the major issue of criminal justice reform, perhaps meeting in the middle at some point in the future after what one senator predicted will be a "fairly lengthy evolutionary process."
The Judiciary Committee on Thursday opened voting on two reform bills, a sweeping overhaul that appears headed for Senate floor debate and a slimmed down bill enabling individuals serving mandatory minimum sentences to reduce their time in prison through earned "good time."
Under the bill targeted for the Senate, courts would no longer impose mandatory minimum sentences for dealing drugs near a school or cocaine distribution, and unruly students would no longer risk a criminal record for acting out in school, according to a summary obtained by the News Service.
In a poll of committee members that went out midday Thursday and closes Friday afternoon, House Chairwoman Claire Cronin advised members to reserve their rights on a redraft of S 791, which would enable the bill to move out of the House-controlled committee to the Senate. Senate Chairman William Brownsberger recommended a vote in favor of the legislation.
Both chairs were in support of a second bill, a redraft of H 74 filed by Gov. Charlie Baker, also polling Thursday and Friday that would allow certain offenders sentenced to state prison for mandatory minimum sentences to gain access to work release and parole before completing their minimum term. That bill is based on recommendations from the Council of State Governments.
With 240 sections and 114 pages, the Senate-bound bill proposes sweeping changes to the state's system of maintaining order and punishing criminals.
While the bulk of the bill is geared toward reducing the inmate population and diverting people from the criminal justice system, it would also impose mandatory minimum sentences for trafficking fentanyl and strengthen the penalties for solicitation of murder, according to the summary.
The threshold for larceny to rise to a felony offense would be raised from its current level of $250 to $1,500, under the bill. It would also enable people to seal the crime of resisting arrest from their records and repeal the law criminalizing being in the presence of heroin.
Other provisions of the Senate bill seek to reduce the likelihood that someone's driver's license would be suspended. The bill eliminates license suspension for missing a court date or tagging and would establish a payment plan to "reduce suspensions for late payment of fines," according to the summary.
Leaders of both the House and Senate have agreed to put criminal justice reform on this session's agenda but there are brewing disagreements, which have lingered for years, over how to approach policy changes in the areas of sentencing, rehabilitation and public safety.
Broadly speaking, both Senate President Stan Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo have said they want to go beyond what the Council of State Governments recommended, and DeLeo in September said he hopes the branches both pass a "two-bill package" by the end of the year.
"I think it's going to be a fairly lengthy evolutionary process as it evolves between the House and the Senate, but I think it will be one of the things that takes up a significant amount of time," Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, told the News Service on Thursday. He said, "The biggest thing I'm looking for is balance. Certainly we need to be looking at folks that are incarcerated that have issues of mental health and substance abuse. We need to properly focus on making sure there's appropriate treatment for those folks – diversion programs as appropriate where incarceration doesn't make sense. But I think some of our attention has been misplaced on issues that maybe are not as proliferate in the criminal justice system."
Criminal justice reform should reduce incarceration, especially among non-violent offenders with mental illness and substance abuse problems, and better prepare inmates for reentry to society, Rosenberg told Boston Herald Radio on Wednesday.
The repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses is a top agenda item for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which had a lobby day in the State House on Wednesday. The group claims more than half the people serving mandatory minimums were found guilty of "low-level street transactions" and while black and Latino residents make up 22 percent of the state's population, the percentage of black and Latino prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses is three times as high.
Criminal justice reform can be a fraught issue for policymakers who fear repercussions from voters if relaxed policies are later blamed for headline-grabbing crimes. Other lawmakers are adamant about enacting major changes to reduce the state's inmate population.
At Boston's Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast in January, Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, described "whole city blocks where not a single household is untouched by the criminal justice system -- where family after family is eroded from its full strength because brother, mother, father, son are missing for years at a time."
The last major effort to alter sentencing was a 2012 law that maximized penalties for three-time felons and reduced some mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. At the time, legislative leaders pledged to revisit other criminal justice issues, but progress has been slow.
The Senate-bound bill rewrites the bail statute "in light of" a Supreme Judicial Court decision on the matter, according to the summary.
"A bail that is set without any regard to whether a defendant is a pauper or a plutocrat runs the risk of being excessive and unfair," Geraldine Hines, who is now retired from the state's highest court, wrote in an August opinion. "A $250 cash bail will have little impact on the well-to-do, for whom it is less than the cost of a night's stay in a downtown Boston hotel, but it will probably result in detention for a homeless person whose entire earthly belongings can be carried in a cart."
The bail statute re-write seeks to "introduce more systematic risk-assessment" into the bail process, according to the summary. Use of prescribed drugs, including marijuana – whose use for medical purposes was legalized in 2012 – would not constitute probation violations under the bill, according to the summary.