House, Senate poised to go separate ways on criminal justice bills

Branches would need to reach agreement afterwards to move reforms forward



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.

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