Reform allies say criminal justice bill includes ‘real positives’

A handful of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses would be repealed and the state’s approach to juvenile offenders overhauled in a sweeping criminal justice bill released last Friday by House and Senate lawmakers.

The completion of the compromise bill marks the end to months of private negotiations in the Legislature over what could become a signature achievement for the Legislature this election year.

While votes in both the House and Senate are not expected for another week, reform advocates are already celebrating the breadth of a bill they said would make a major impact for people and minority communities negatively impacted by past tough-on-crime policies that emphasized punishment over rehabilitation.

“The agreement we’ve reached is about lifting people up, not locking them up,” said Sen. William Brownsberger, the Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee and the lead Senator negotiator on the bill.

He described the current system lawmakers are looking to reform as a “sprawling bureaucracy that ensnares people but from which they cannot escape.”

Lew Finfer, a Dorchester resident with the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, said he was pleased with many sections of the bill, including bail reform and the elimination of some mandatory minimums. Though he would have liked to see the age of juvenile court jurisdiction raised to 19, he said, “There’s a lot of real positives in the bill. Looking back a year ago, it’s better than we thought might have been possible.”

The bill would eliminate some mandatory minimum sentences for what lawmakers described as “low-level drug offenses,” including first and second offenses for cocaine possession, and require district attorneys to create pre-arraignment diversion programs for veterans and those suffering from mental health and substance abuse disorders.

It would also make eligible for expungement from criminal records some crimes committed by offenders up to age 21, while adults would be able to apply to have their records expunged of crimes that are no longer considered illegal in Massachusetts, such as possession of marijuana.

The compromise bill (S 2371) filed by a six-member conference committee Friday marries competing versions that passed the House and Senate last year, and will move first to the Senate floor where a vote is not expected until the first week of April.

The Senate at the same time will take up a separate piece of legislation that Gov. Charlie Baker filed last year, and which passed the House on Nov. 14, that was born out of a Council of State Governments study of the state’s criminal justice system and recommends pathways for some inmates to rehabilitate themselves and get out of prison early.

The bill includes a measure pushed by Baker this week that would amend the state’s fentanyl trafficking law to allow prosecutors to bring a trafficking charge, which carries a sentence of up to 20 years, for offenders caught with a mixture of 10 grams or more that contains any amount of fentanyl. Baker and law enforcement officials this week noted the current law requires prosecutors to prove that a drug sample has at least 10 grams of pure fentanyl, which the state drug lab is not equipped to detect.

The conference committee also recommended scheduling fentanyl and carfentanil, two deadly synthetic opioids that have contributed to a rising percentage of opioid overdose deaths, as Class A narcotics, and adopting the federal drug registry for all synthetic opioids so that the state can keep up with the evolving drug market.

“Let the message be clear. Fentanyl and carfentanil are not welcome in Massachusetts,” said Rep. Claire Cronin, the House chair of the Judiciary Committee and that branch’s lead negotiator on the bill.

Cronin said that the bill broadly aims to reduce recidivism, enhance public safety and save money for taxpayers by diverting people that would otherwise be sent to prison to treatment and other programs.

Neither Cronin nor Sen. William Brownsberger could put numbers to the amount of money the state will save, or how many people could avoid jail time as a result of the bill.

“It’s impossible to actually measure all that, but we expect it will have a significant effect. Ultimately, it depends on how people use the tools we’ve created for them,” Brownsberger said.

The final bill does not propose to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 18 to 19, but it does raise the age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 12. It also prevents correction facilities from using solitary confinement as a punishment tool for juveniles and pregnant women.

The bill also makes reforms to the bail system by making sure no one will be imprisoned for their inability to pay court fees and fines, lifts the threshold for felony larceny from $250 to $1,200 and creates new penalties for repeat offenders who are charged with their sixth, seventh, eighth or ninth operating under the influence violation.

There is also a provision to allow for the compassionate release of terminally ill inmates, and the bill stipulates parents and children can’t be required to testify against one another in court

The House will get to debate and vote on the final package after the Senate before it reaches Gov. Baker’s desk for his consideration. The report, which was filed with the Senate clerk on Friday, cannot be amended under legislative rules.

Baker has not filed comparable legislation, so it’s difficult to know how the administration will receive the comprehensive proposal, or if there are sections that might prompt the governor to return the bill with amendments.

“The Baker-Polito Administration is pleased that the committee has reached an agreement and will carefully review final legislation that reaches the governor’s desk,” spokesman Brendan Moss said.

Brownsberger said the conference committee opted against changing the state’s statutory rape laws, which was one of the more sensitive topics of debates when the bills were last considered in the House and Senate.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain Democrat, also praised the scope of the bill after many pro-reform Democrats last year publicly worried that it would get pared back due to political pressures.

“It’s going to put us on a path as a state to right a moral wrong,” Chang-Diaz said. “This is definitely a day for celebration. A massive and joyful turning point for the state, something that’s finally going to honor the needs of the communities that experience the most crime and have gone ignored for too long.”

Gavi Wolfe, legislative director of the ACLU, called it disappointing that the conference report recommends a new mandatory minimum sentence for fentanyl trafficking of three-and-a-half years.

Overall, however, Wolfe said the ACLU was encouraged by the bill, including a provision that requires the collection and publishing of arrest data that he said would help create a more complete picture of the criminal justice system.

“This represents really important progress for criminal justice reform in Massachusetts,” he said.