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Showdown On Criminal Justice Reform Takes Shape On Beacon Hill

House Speaker Robert DeLeo speaks as then-Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland listens in this 2011 file photo. Ireland is now advising DeLeo's House on criminal justice legislation. (Elise Amendola/AP)
House Speaker Robert DeLeo speaks as then-Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland listens in this 2011 file photo. Ireland is now advising DeLeo's House on criminal justice legislation. (Elise Amendola/AP)
This article is more than 1 year old.

A showdown between the more liberal Senate and the more conservative House of Representatives is taking shape on Beacon Hill, as both branches get set to take up an overhaul of the state’s criminal justice laws.

A bill to be considered by the House is based on recommendations put forth in a report by the nonprofit Council of State Governments and focuses primarily on so-called “back end” issues, pertaining to areas such as probation and parole and other post-incarceration supervision.

The Senate legislation goes much further than the House bill, although a former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, who is serving as an unpaid adviser to the House on the matter, says everything is “on the table.”

“It’s a very important topic,” said retired Justice Roderick Ireland, after meeting with House Speaker Robert DeLeo on Wednesday afternoon. “I will share my thinking based on my experience and my knowledge about the criminal justice system, and I will give my views to the speaker and we’ll exchange ideas.

"Of course he’ll have the final call on things, but at least he’ll hear from me on what I think are the important points about the criminal justice reform."

The 114-page Senate bill makes several changes to state law as it pertains to the “front end” of the criminal justice system. Many drug-related mandatory minimum sentences would be repealed. Fees for indigent criminal defendants would be reduced or eliminated. The state’s bail system would be overhauled.

“This bill is about lifting people up instead of locking people up,” said Sen. William Brownsberger, a Democrat from Belmont and co-chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “It’s a recognition that at this point we have a very high incarceration rate in this state and we need to look to ways to reduce incarceration where it’s not necessary."

Other highlights of the Senate bill include:

  • Tighter controls on the use of solitary confinement
  • Keep 18-year-old defendants in the juvenile justice system
  • Expand the use of restorative justice diversion
  • Expungement of misdemeanor and non-conviction juvenile records

Proposals in the Senate bill are being hailed by the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.

“I love what I see in the Senate bill,” said Rep. Frank Moran (D-Lawrence), who serves as chair of the caucus.

"There’s a few more adjustments we’re going to do to the House bill to make it even better,” Moran added. He said the caucus wants to see reforms such as the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders to make it better for communities of color.

“In a community like ours, you know, you have a young kid who probably has a bigger chance of getting into trouble than in other communities,” Moran said.

But prosecutors, including Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, have concerns with the Senate bill, calling it regressive.

“They take us back to a time long ago when crime was rampant in the state,” O’Keefe said. “And now we have the fewest people incarcerated I think in our modern history. We’re 49th in the nation in rate of incarceration, so I think we’re doing a pretty good job and I wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here."

Both House and Senate leaders say they are committed to debating the bills before they must break for the calendar year on Nov. 15.

It is quite likely both branches will pass different versions of the bill, setting up the need for a conference committee that could very well write an entirely new bill that would be placed before both branches sometime in 2018.

Earlier:

Steve Brown Twitter Senior Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's senior State House reporter.

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