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After a unanimous vote in the House on Wednesday, both branches of the Legislature have approved a bill repealing a 1989 law that automatically suspended the driver's licenses for drug offenders whose crimes had nothing to do with operating a motor vehicle.
The House version of the bill included language sponsored by members of the Republican caucus that would preserve license suspensions for those convicted of trafficking in illegal drugs aside from marijuana.
Current law requires the registrar of motor vehicles to suspend for up to five years the licenses of those convicted of violating any provision of the Controlled Substances Act, which includes counts for possession of illegal drugs.
Ahead of the 150-0 vote in the House, Rep. Evandro Carvalho, a Dorchester Democrat and former assistant district attorney, told members he had witnessed the effect of the automatic license suspension law firsthand as a prosecutor in Roxbury.
"We are addressing one of the biggest challenges to re-entry that non-violent drug offenders face in our state," Carvalho said in his first speech on the House floor. He said, "If they can't drive, they often can't work; they can't take their children to school; they can't take their grandparents or their parents to a doctor's appointment."
Cheering the House's action in its first formal session of 2016, Jobs Not Jails volunteer Delia Vega told the News Service that about 7,000 people lose their license through the law every year and only about 2,500 people who lost their licenses have them reinstated annually.
Vega said it "takes people years" and costs at least $500 to receive their license back under the current system.
"This outdated state law is an unnecessary barrier and burden for thousands in this state trying to rebuild their lives and stay out of the criminal justice system," Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement.
"This vote, I believe, marks a significant step in efforts to further criminal justice reform in the Commonwealth," Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian said in a statement.
Rep. William Straus, the House chairman of the Transportation Committee, said the administrative suspension is not part of the criminal sentence for a drug conviction and a judge could still impose a license-suspension if that was deemed prudent. The bill does not change the license-suspension provision for those convicted of driving while intoxicated, according to Healey.
The House amendment sponsored by Minority Leader Bradley Jones of North Reading would require an automatic suspension of up to five years for those convicted of trafficking in heroin and other illicit drugs, but not marijuana.
The 1989 law teed up for repeal has a corresponding provision for suspending the licenses of juvenile delinquents who violate the drug laws. The House amendment preserving suspensions for drug traffickers would also apply to juvenile delinquents who trafficked in hard drugs.
Rep. Elizabeth Malia, the House chairwoman of the Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, previously said the statute is a "remnant" of the "well-intentioned but ineffective war on drugs."
In September, the Senate unanimously passed its version of the bill (S 2021), which was originally sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler. The Senate version also mandated a report on implementation of the legislation from the registrar of motor vehicles.
Lew Finfer, who is on the Steering Committee of Jobs Not Jails, told the News Service he anticipates the differences between the House and Senate bills will be worked out in conference committee.