Major justice reform bill clears Legislature

Signals shift in focus from punishment toward rehabilitation and substance use treatment


WITH ONLY A WHIFF of opposition, the Massachusetts Legislature on Wednesday passed a broad package of criminal justice system reforms that have languished for years, signaling a likely shift in focus away from punishment and toward rehabilitation and substance use treatment in an effort to reduce recidivism.

The legislation (S 2371), which was the product of months of negotiations between the two branches, cleared the Senate 37-0 and was passed by the House 148-5 on Wednesday afternoon. Reps. Nicholas Boldyga, Kevin Kuros, Marc Lombardo, James Lyons and Shaunna O’Connell were the only votes in opposition.

“Why should we undertake criminal justice reform?” Rep. Claire Cronin, chair of the Judiciary Committee and the branch’s lead negotiator on the package, said on the floor. “The research and data show that the answer is pretty clear: because we know that criminal justice reform will reduce recidivism, we know that it will increase public safety and we know that it will provide long-term cost savings to the taxpayer. But we also know that by doing so, we will improve the lives of many and for many years to come.”

Sen. William Brownsberger, the Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee and the lead Senate negotiator, described the current system lawmakers are looking to reform as a “sprawling bureaucracy that ensnares people but from which they cannot escape.”

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.

The legislation also makes reforms to the bail system and 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.

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.

Stephanie Bellapianta, a 20-year-old from Haverhill who is part of the Teens Leading the Way advocacy group, said the bill’s provisions dealing with expungement for youthful offenders will have a major impact on young people in Massachusetts.

“It means a great deal for our youth because they can now erase a part of the record that was non-violent,” she said. “It can change their lives quite drastically when they go in an apply for jobs, apply for housing or apply for financial assistance for higher education. It’s significant.”

Advocates shifted their focus Wednesday to Gov. Charlie Baker, who has recommended more modest changes and has not yet weighed in on many of the major policy changes included in the compromise legislation.

Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said the bill passed Wednesday represents “important progress” but that more work remains to end over-incarceration and racial disparities in the justice system.

“Governor Baker now has the opportunity to be a force for change — and we urge him to sign into law a criminal justice package that ensures the fair administration of justice for everyone, not just the connected and wealthy,” Rose said. “Anything short of that is an endorsement of a criminal justice system that favors unfairness over justice for all.”

Baker’s office said the administration will “carefully review the final legislation once it reaches the governor’s desk.” The bill was publicly released almost two weeks ago and legislative rules prohibited lawmakers from making any changes to the bill. The Senate enacted the bill at 5:15 p.m., officially sending it to the governor’s desk.

When Baker does look at the legislation, he will see that it includes a measure he recently pushed to 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.

The compromise also adds a new three-and-a-half year minimum sentence for someone convicted of trafficking the deadly synthetic opioids fentanyl and carfentanil, two deadly synthetic opioids that have contributed to a rising percentage of opioid overdose deaths.

That provision led Democratic candidate for governor Setti Warren to announce Wednesday that he would veto the compromise legislation if he were governor, saying he could not “in good conscience” sign any legislation that creates a new mandatory minimum.

Rep. Sheila Harrington, a Republican who served on the conference committee, explained the necessity behind the new mandatory minimums in a floor speech to her colleagues.

“What you do need to understand is that we have to balance two things at all times and the two things that we have to balance is the safety of the public that we serve as well as the need for reform,” she said. She added, “We had to add them with fentanyl and carfentanil because the risk that they pose to the public is insurmountable.”

The bill also re-schedules fentanyl and carfentanil as Class A narcotics and adopts the federal drug registry for all synthetic opioids so that the state can keep up with the evolving drug market.

The Legislature on Wednesday also enacted a separate piece of legislation that grew out of a Council of State Governments (CSG) study of the state’s criminal justice system. That bill (H 4012), which Baker had been pressing lawmakers to pass in tandem with the larger reform package, creates new pathways for some inmates to rehabilitate themselves and get out of prison early.


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