House Leaders Tee Up Criminal Justice Reform Legislation

The Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Massachusetts House plans to consider substantial changes to the way justice is delivered, with a committee polling members Monday on legislation to repeal certain mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, grant people additional opportunities to clear their records, and crack down on chronic drunk drivers.

The House plans to start debate on the bill (here's a summary) next Monday with two days set aside for floor deliberations. Negotiations with the Senate, which approved its criminal justice reform bill last week, could begin during the Legislature's seven-week holiday recess, potentially marking the first major effort to pass omnibus legislation on this topic in many years.

"The new criminal justice system will be based on the individual. We will find equity through the individual," House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sánchez told reporters in a briefing by four House Democrats and former Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland Monday in the House Members' Lounge.

While the Senate bill is more expansive, there is broad overlap between the bill that the House Committee on Ways and Means began polling Monday at noon and the legislation the Senate passed 27-10 in the early hours of Oct. 27.

Both bills eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, although the Senate bill goes further in that area, eliminating minimum prison terms for people convicted of trafficking less than 100 grams of cocaine.

The House Ways and Means bill eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for distributing cocaine and other drugs, but Rep. Claire Cronin, the House chair of the Judiciary Committee, said they "drew the line" at trafficking, keeping in place the minimum sentences for moving substantial quantities of drugs.

Noting recent gun violence in his district, including the murder of a 16-year-old last week, Sánchez emphasized how drug traffickers perpetuate violence and said the bill is a "practice in balance," maintaining harsh penalties for traffickers in deadly narcotics while offering people a chance to clear their records of old crimes more quickly.

The legislation enables expungement of criminal records in cases where an offense is no longer a crime -- such as marijuana possession -- or certain criminal records of juveniles as well as young adults age 18 to 21.

The bill proposes what Cronin called "potentially the strictest law in the country dealing with carfentanil," a powerful synthetic opioid that can be lethal in even tiny doses. Anyone knowingly trafficking carfentanil would face a penalty of three and a half to 20 years in prison.

"We are sending a message loud and clear that carfentanil is not welcome in Massachusetts," Cronin said.

Carfentanil would be considered a Class A drug, and fentanyl — now a Class B drug — would also be moved to Class A. The bill also makes changes to the fentanyl trafficking law, adding a minimum penalty of three and a half years, and amending it so that trafficking penalties kick in for sales of 10 grams of a mixture containing fentanyl, rather than the current law's 10 net grams of fentanyl.

The fentanyl and carfentanil measures reflect the fact that the drugs are "so potent that even the tiniest amount is deadly," Cronin said.

"We're not out to get people who buy an ounce of grass and unbeknownst to them there's grams of fentanyl in it, but we are sending a serious and strong message to dealers who traffic in fentanyl that punishments are going to be strong," said House Majority Leader Ron Mariano.

Repeat intoxicated driving offenses would be handled more strictly under the House bill, with new penalties created for sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth offenses. Present law treats fifth and subsequent offenses of operating under the influence the same, with a penalty of a fine and between two and a half years to five years in prison.

The House bill steps up prison time in stages, so that a seventh OUI offense would be punishable with three and a half years to eight years in prison and ninth and subsequent offenses punishable with four and a half years to 10 years in prison.

The House Ways and Means bill does not propose changes to statutory rape laws, unlike the Senate's bill that created exceptions for sexual activity between teens close in age.

The Senate bill raises the value threshold at which larceny becomes a felony instead of a misdemeanor from its current $250 to $1,500. After conversations with people convicted of larceny, business groups and others, House leaders settled on an increase to $750, Cronin said.

Supporters of raising the threshold point to years of inflation since the $250 level was set in the 1980s, while retailers and others warn that an increase could encourage theft and make shoplifting harder to prosecute.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he expects to see representatives propose amendments dealing with the larceny threshold. "That will be an area of debate," he said.

Under an order the House adopted last week, lawmakers will have until 5 p.m. Thursday to file amendments.

While the Senate bill would bring 18-year-olds into the juvenile justice system, the House Ways and Means Committee declined to take that step in its bill.

"We did not see fit to raise the age level on the upper end," said Cronin, who said she had heard concerns from those working "in the trenches" about grouping together adolescents and older teenagers.

Attorney General Maura Healey and others have sought to increase the penalties on corporations found guilty of manslaughter. The $1,000 penalty for corporate manslaughter was set in 1819. That penalty would be increased to up to $250,000 under the House bill, with the option to debar for up to 10 years a company convicted of manslaughter.

House and Senate lawmakers have both sought to place limits on the use of solitary confinement within the correctional system. The House Ways and Means bill would establish time limits on when an inmate could be held apart from other prisoners and it would establish a segregation review board to consider whether someone should be held longer than the limits set by the bill.

Clocking in at 106 sections and 119 pages, the bill "covers the spectrum" of criminal justice in Massachusetts from arrest to post-conviction, said Ireland, the former SJC chief justice, who consulted with the speaker on the issue this year.

"I think this legislation provides workable reforms that will help bring equity to our criminal justice system. It is a reform plan for the real world," Ireland said.

The Senate bill covered 174 pages and included 352 sections.



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