House takes up the ‘strong step’ criminal reform bill OK’d by Senate

The criminal justice reform bill that the Massachusetts Senate passed last Friday, a move that advocates called a “strong step” toward improving a system that disproportionately impacts communities of color, is now in the hands of the House. Lawmakers hope to see its version of the bill passed in the next two weeks so they can begin the work of hashing out a compromise bill to send to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.

The sweeping Senate bill would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses, refine the bail system to set lower court fees and fines for lower-income defendants, raise the age for adult prosecution from 18 to 19 years old, reform conditions in solitary confinement, raise the youngest age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 7 to 12 years old, and alter statutory rape laws to separate out cases involving teenagers.

After hours of debate on amendments, senators voted 27-10 to approve the measure, with four Democrats joining the six Republicans in opposing the final version.

Nine of Massachusetts’s eleven district attorneys, including Suffolk County’s Daniel Conley, had sent a searing letter to Senate leadership opposing several of the bill’s provisions before its passage. “One of our concerns, quite candidly,” they wrote, “is the sheer size, density and breadth of the bill and the risk this creates for legislators and citizens to fully understand the true, practical implication of its many details.”

“This bill takes into account the draconian statutory enforcements that have an ill effect on our communities, particularly communities of color,” said assistant Pastor Willie Bodrick of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. “We need a system that is equitable; we need a system that is just; we need a system that makes sure each and every person in our communities no matter what their experience is will have second chance at life.”

Bodrick spoke in support of the Senate bill at a press conference at the State House on Tuesday, along with other black and Latino leaders from civic, community, labor, and religious groups. Community leaders representing areas with higher than average rates of those arrested for low-level offenses and charged with crimes carrying mandatory minimum sentences are seeking a voice in the ongoing discussions.

According to Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, black and Latino individuals make up 22 percent of the state’s population but 57 percent of those incarcerated and 75 percent of those serving mandatory minimum sentences. A majority of inmates in solitary confinement are black and Latino, he said.

Disciplinary trends starting in school “plumbs our children into the prison system,” Hall said. “When white children are disciplined at a rate of 1 in 27, Latino children at a rate of 1 in 12, and black children at a rate of 1 in 8, and there’s a correlation between discipline and school dropout, and a correlation between dropout and involvement in the criminal justice system,” he said, more diversionary resources should be dedicated to the schools and certain school-based offenses should be decriminalized.

“Complexities” in the impact of the criminal justice system make it a tangled mess to sort through, said Andrea James of the Mothers for Justice and Healing organization. When families are split apart, or members return from prison with no usable skills, the neighborhoods feel “the level of disruption that it causes in our lives that makes it incredibly difficult to just pull ourselves up, get ourselves together.”

Provisions in the measure are designed to either divert individuals from the criminal justice system in the first place or be more compassionate in providing support when they leave jail or prison to allow for a smoother transition back into their communities.

“Whatever people do, they’re responsible for,” said Lew Finfer or the Dorchester-based Massachusetts Communities Action Network (MCAN), “but people can’t be surprised if you can’t get a job, or just a low-paying job, or they are not eligible for housing. … It’s not a wonder why people fall down and do something wrong again.”

Finfer, whose group is part of the larger Jobs not Jails coalition, highlighted the value of Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) reform. Along with limiting the kinds of records that would be included in a CORI report, the Senate bill would reduce waiting periods for sealing misdemeanor and felony records from 5 to 10 years, respectively, to 3 and 7 years. A person with a sealed CORI record can currently say, “I have no record” when applying for jobs; the proposed bill would allow the person to do the same if applying for housing and occupational licenses.

In their pre-passage statement, the nine district attorneys took particular issue with the statutory rape change, the raising of the adult age for prosecution, and changes to mandatory minimums such as resetting the threshold for a mandatory sentence for trafficking cocaine or eliminating minimums for repeat dealers of heroin or fentanyl.

“Every district attorney in Massachusetts opposes mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders,” they wrote. “The vast majority also believes that the current structure of drug weights is appropriately high to create a bright line that separates drug traffickers from either users or those engaged in low-level dealing to support their own habit.”

Advocates of the measure said they are skeptical of that motivation. Finfer said that the district attorneys want to “control sentencing,” either by requiring automatic minimums or by using them to secure plea deals.

At the Tuesday press conference, state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry said that House Speaker Robert DeLeo would like to have a bill come out of the House soon, so that a conference committee could be set up before Nov. 15.

The more than 100-page Senate bill includes guidance on de-escalation training and better protocols for interactions on the street, Dorcena Forry said. “What do we do when we come upon someone who might not look like us, that might not have grown up in the same place, but how can we be able to [interact] as human beings,” she asked. “That’s what this bill is about, bringing the humanity back into criminal justice reform.”

Art J. Gordon, the pastor at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Roxbury, said that while advocates will continue to call for further improvements, “this bill pushes us toward an equitable justice system, a system that lives up to its name of justice.”