Stage Set For Mass. Democrats To Compromise On Criminal Justice Reform Bill

Nov 16, 2017

In a major step toward justice system overhauls, both branches of the Massachusetts state legislature have now approved bills that do away with mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, restrict the use of solitary confinement, allow for the expungement of juvenile records and strengthen laws against fentanyl trafficking. 

Despite those areas of common ground, the House and Senate versions of criminal justice reform packages differ widely in several areas, setting the stage for conference committee negotiations that will likely extend into next year.

"These bills are all about balance," House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez said Monday as the House began discussing its legislation. "How do we make sure that we ensure the public safety of the commonwealth and also help those in the criminal justice system who want to turn their life around? We do this through a number of practical and extremely progressive policies." The House passed its bill (H 4011) just after 9 p.m. Wednesday on a 144-9 vote, with Republican Reps. Donald Berthiaume of Spencer, Nicholas Boldyga of Southwick, David DeCoste of Norwell, Geoff Diehl of Whitman, Shawn Dooley of Norfolk, Kevin Kuros of Uxbridge, Marc Lombardo of Billerica, James Lyons of Andover and Shaunna O'Connell of Taunton voting against.

Lombardo singled out the bill's repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for cocaine dealing as one reason he could not endorse it, calling cocaine "a vehicle for fentanyl, a vehicle for death." He said Billerica police recently warned residents about overdose deaths involving laced cocaine.

"I will not support a bill that fails to protect the families in my community from drug dealers who are selling death to our loved ones," Lombardo said.

The House made changes to its bill during the two days of deliberations, adopting amendments to, among other measures, create a rape kit tracking system to address backlogs, examine the costs prisoners pay for phone calls, and prohibit "unreasonable" limits or bans on in-person visitation for prisoners.

A total of 140 amendments -- about two-thirds of the 212 originally filed -- were withdrawn by sponsors following private talks with House leadership.

Only one amendment -- a Rep. Christopher Markey proposal targeting the structuring of prison sentences - was rejected outright. Markey argued the change would spur more prisoners to partake in rehabilitation programs rather than being released to the street "without anybody looking over them."

Markey said prisoners are deciding to spend more time behind bars to avoid supervision. "They are in total control," he said, arguing his amendment would reduce the number of people incarcerated and give prisoners tools to succeed once they are released.

Democrats effectively shut down numerous Republican-backed ideas by adding on further amendments calling for a study of issues.

"Show some political courage and take an up or down vote. Sending difficult topics to study is a cop out. #TheStudiesNeverHappen," Rep. Kuros tweeted during the session.

Minority Leader Brad Jones's amendment that sought to create a new crime of drug distribution causing death -- punishable by a mandatory minimum of five years and up to life in prison -- was among those sent to study on a vote of 110-41.

In its bill (S 2200), the Senate voted to allow second-degree murder charges to be levied against people who knowingly traffic drugs that result in death.

Both the House and Senate eschewed an update to the state's wiretap laws, a provision Gov. Charlie Baker has filed as separate legislation. Each agreed to another Baker proposal creating a new mandatory minimum sentence for assault and battery on a police officer that causes serious injury.

Both bills include language that would raise the value at which larceny rises from a misdemeanor to a felony, $250 under current law. The Senate opted for a $1,500 threshold, while the House, after voting 117-36 for a Rep. Michael Day amendment, landed at $1,000.

With no discussion, the House voted 136-18 in favor of a Jones amendment adding a new section dealing with witness intimidation. The amendment, similar to legislation Baker has proposed, treats threats to a family member of a witness on the same level as intimidation of witnesses themselves.

The House also adopted a Rep. Kay Khan amendment that decreases the time for petitioning for expungement of criminal records from ten years to seven years for a felony and from seven years to three years for a misdemeanor. It applies to those who committed the offense before turning 21, an aide said.

Khan, who has repeatedly filed juvenile expungement bills, said states with minimal administrative barriers to expungement have reduced recidivism and rearrest rates and increased college graduation and incomes as young people transition to adulthood and gain access to jobs.

"Most youth with juvenile court records will not offend as adults," Khan said, adding that research rebuts the assumption that they are at a higher risk for future criminal activity.

Judiciary Committee Co-chairs Rep. Claire Cronin of Easton and Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont are among the likely six conference committee members who will be named to try to come up with a consensus bill.

This report was originally published by State House News Service. Michael Norton contributed reporting.