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Convicted drug offenders would no longer have their driver's licenses automatically suspended, under a bill the Massachusetts Senate unanimously approved Thursday.
State law currently requires mandatory suspension of a person's driver's license for up to five years when that person is convicted of a drug crime, even if the violation was unrelated to driving. Supporters of the bill say the existing law only makes it harder for offenders to keep their jobs and care for their families after they've served their sentences.
The bill also would eliminate a $500 fine that drug offenders are required to pay to get their license reinstated and would allow anyone whose license was suspended under the existing law to have their license reinstated without a fee.
The measure would keep in place, however, license suspension penalties for those convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The bill, which has the support of Attorney General Maura Healey, now heads to the House.
Thirty-four states have eliminated provisions automatically suspending driver's licenses for drug offenses. In Massachusetts, the driver's licenses of about 7,000 people are suspended each year for drug crimes, even if the offenses don't involve a car.
Worcester Democrat Harriette Chandler, the legislation's main sponsor, portrayed the current law as a failed tough-on-crime throwback that ultimately does more harm than good.
"This isn't about being tough on crime. It's about being smart on crime," Chandler said during Thursday's debate.
Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, a bill co-sponsor, said the measure would ensure that once an offender has served his or her sentence, "he or she has one more tool to return to society as a productive citizen, a driver's license, which dramatically increases the ability to find gainful employment."
The bill also would affect the release of certain information. Driving records currently include license suspensions unrelated to driving. Employers and others can buy the information from the Registry of Motor Vehicles, which can be used as a "back door" criminal background check and make it possible for employers to obtain information about criminal records, even if the records would normally be sealed, expunged, or shielded. The measure would prevent these checks.
Healey supports repealing the law, and said during a public hearing in July that her office hasn't seen any evidence that license suspensions are an effective way to deter drug offenses unrelated to driving.
Instead, Healey said, suspending licenses has prevented people from getting to work, getting to the grocery store, picking their children up from school and taking their parents or other family members to medical appointments.
"This bill removes an unnecessary barrier to employment and new opportunities, and it's an important step toward smart and fair criminal justice reform," Healey said Thursday after the bill passed the Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, unsuccessfully pushed a proposal that would have kept the existing law in place but allowed convicted drug offenders to seek hardship waivers to retain their licenses.