As Mass. Senate Embarks On Criminal Justice Debate, Judiciary Chair Makes His Case

Oct 25, 2017

The Massachusetts Senate begins debate Thursday on a wide-ranging criminal justice bill

The Senate's plan would get rid of some mandatory minimum sentences, try to reduce the use of solitary confinement and make it easier for defendants to pay bail.

Some criminal justice advocates say the bill does not go far enough to overhaul the system. And some prosecutors say it goes too far.

Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee, William Brownsberger, is the bill's sponsor. While Massachusetts has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country, Brownsberger says the Bay State also has some troubling criminal justice numbers.

State Sen. William Brownsberger: The United States is a country with extraordinarily high incarceration rates. Massachusetts's rate itself is high by international standards. And most strikingly, it's high -- it's about four times what it was, right here in Massachusetts, only 40 years ago.

So we're doing something very different than we were doing 40 years ago, and that incarceration rate is especially concentrated in neighborhoods of poverty and color.

And that is why, in those neighborhoods, the level of incarceration rate itself has become a problem. Crime is a problem, but the level of incarceration has become a problem: mothers and fathers who are away from their kids; people who are locked into a cycle of involvement in the system, and that's something we need to break.

And that's what our bill is about. Our bill is about lifting people up instead of locking people up. It is about cutting the chains that bind people when they are trying to stand up on their own feet, and get back into the legitimate economy.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: Your proposal makes some changes at the younger, and the older, end for who is eligible for juvenile court. Can you talk about those changes, and why those are necessary?

Basically at the low end, it raises the date at which one can be tried at all, from 7 to 12 [years old]. That's a pretty marginal adjustment. There's almost nobody — there's a few hundred cases every year who come in during that range. Almost none of them actually involve a commitment to [the Department of Youth Services]. It's a very rare thing.

The more significant change is at the high end. Today, you're a juvenile until you've had your 18th birthday. Under the bill, you would be a juvenile until you've had your 19th birthday.

For me, that's about moving in the direction of providing good rehabilitative services, which we are able to do. In DYS right now, we have a good Department of Youth Services, which works with young people, and getting more people into that environment. The criminal record that one incurs as a juvenile has much less consequences for the future of one's life.

So we will be keeping people out of jail. We will be keeping people, hopefully, moving in a positive direction, if we we're able to involve more of them in the youth system.

A majority of the state's attorneys in Massachusetts are objecting to portions of your bill. They call a relaxing of some of the statutory rape laws "unnecessary and dangerous." They also oppose elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking. Is there room for negotiation on either point?

What's really important to say — this bill is all about balance. We are not eliminating all the mandatory minimums for drug trafficking. Quite the contrary: we're actually strengthening them for heroin trafficking, and other opiates — for fentanyl, which is the thing that's killing the most people.

So you know, there's a balance to be struck, which I agree with the district attorneys about. We have tried to strike the right balance. And that's a conversation that ultimately the Senate's going to have a chance to vote on, and we'll see whether we've got the right balance.

Criminal justice changes are hard for some politicians to stomach. They worry about well-meaning changes that have unintended consequences down the line that'll haunt them in future elections. How do you convince your colleagues to get around that fear?

You know what? I think every one of my colleagues — I hope that every one of my colleagues will examine their conscience on each measure in this bill, and vote what they think is the right thing to do for the Commonwealth as a whole. I am not trying to lead my colleagues off a cliff on any issue. I want them to do what they feel is the right thing.

The eventual bill passed by the Senate's probably going to go much further than what will come out of the House. And Governor Baker appears tepid on parts of the Senate bill. Is this whole debate going to end in major reforms or in cautious change?

You know, we'll have to see. I want to make one comment on that, though. I don't think there's that big a difference between the House and the Senate, at the end of the day. We're elected by the same people; we have the same range of opinions in the body. And I think that if we pass a bill that the senators are behind, I think you're going to see a bill come out at the final process that is not too different.

The Massachusetts Senate session including debate on the criminal justice bill is scheduled to begin on Thursday, October 26, 2017 at 10:30 am. Video of the session is available at

Heather Brandon contributed to this post.