Senate Passes Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform Bill

Today the Massachusetts Senate passed by a vote of 27-10 a comprehensive criminal justice reform package that updates decades old criminal sentencing laws to improve outcomes of our criminal justice system.  Among the provisions included in the bill are repealing ineffective mandatory minimum sentences for low level drug offenders, reducing and eliminating over burdensome fees and fines, reforming the bail system, allowing for compassionate release for infirmed inmates, and reforms to the juvenile justice system.

“In state after state, criminal justice reform has led to lower incarceration rates, lower crime rates, and lower recidivism rates. It’s time Massachusetts joins the national let’s get smart on crime movement.  This bill protects public safety and makes commonsense reforms while improving outcomes with our precious tax dollars,” said Senate President Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst).

Senator Julian Cyr (D-Truro) sponsored two amendments that were included in the final version of the bill approved by the Massachusetts Senate.

One amendment aims to secure equal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ), intersex, and gender non-conforming prisoners by ensuring access to healthcare providers with expertise in transgender health care and creating a special commission to study the health and safety of LGBTQ, intersex, and gender non-conforming prisoners in Massachusetts. 

“The lived experience of LGBTQ, intersex, and gender non-conforming inmates within our correctional system are often harrowing, traumatic, and heartbreaking,” said Senator Julian Cyr. “LGBTQ inmates are six times more likely to be sexually assaulted than those in the general prison population, and transgender inmates are disproportionately forced into solitary confinement on the basis of their gender identity. As a Commonwealth, we have a responsibility to ensure that inmates in the custody of the state have access to culturally and clinically competent care. I am proud of the Senate for adopting these protections for some of the most vulnerable individuals in our correctional system.” 

Senator Cyr was also successful in securing an amendment that permits the Commissioner of Probation to designate certain probation officers to specialize in servicing young adults aged 19-26. Specialized caseloads allow assigned officers to receive training on specific techniques relative to the young adult age bracket and develop a broad understanding of relevant community-based services.

“Young adults stand out as a distinct developmental group with heightened impulsive behavior, risk taking, and poor decision making,” said Cyr. “Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is individuals in this age group that are most likely to become repeat offenders. Probation officers play a key role in the lives of young adults in the criminal justice system, and with targeted interactions and training the results can be more productive and beneficial.”

The bill, An Act Relative to Criminal Justice Reform, sponsored by Senator Will Brownsberger (D- Belmont), Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary is the result of many months of work researching best practices, common sense solutions, procedures and policies that have been effective in other states to produce legislation that will enhance diversion from the criminal justice system, repeal outdated mandatory minimums for low level drug offenders, lower costs, and produce better outcomes.

"This bill is about lifting people up instead of locking them up, while focusing attention on the most serious offenders," said Senator Brownsberger.

Assistant Majority Leader Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), who has been advocating for criminal justice reform since she became a Senator in 1998, noted the bill’s breadth: “I am proud to say that this bill touches on every phase of the criminal justice system, from the front end of the system, including more diversion and expansion of addiction treatment opportunities, to the back end including sentencing, prison programming and solitary confinement reforms. This bill goes a long way to modernize our system in line with our principles of rehabilitation and reduced recidivism.”

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “roughly 2.2 million people are behind bars in the United States, an increase of 1.9 million since 1972. We have the world’s largest prison population – with one-quarter of its prisoners but just 5 percent of the total population.”[1]

“This bill is a critical victory for criminal justice reform. Over the last 40 years, our criminal justice system has become as much a perpetrator as a protector for too many Massachusetts residents – hollowing out communities and failing to keep us safer. Today the Senate took real action to stand with communities across the Commonwealth and end the vicious cycles of incarceration and crime,” said Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston).  “This bill won’t finish the work of reforming our justice system, but it is a courageous and giant step – and we shouldn’t accept anything less.”

As part of a nationwide trend in addressing the inequities in the bail system, the bill reforms the current bail system of the Commonwealth by setting strict guidelines for judges when setting bail for a defendant.  The bill rewrites the existing bail statute to create a clear road map for decision-making consistent with the Supreme Judicial Court’s recent ruling that cash bail must be affordable.   The bill goes beyond that guidance to further strengthen the procedural barriers to setting bail that is higher than a defendant can afford, to ensure individuals are not held solely because they are unable to pay.

“Today I was proud to join my Senate colleagues in voting to pass comprehensive criminal justice reform; especially much needed reforms to our pretrial bail system. Ability to pay bail should never be used as criteria to determine someone’s freedom,” said Senator Cindy Friedman (D-Arlington).  “Today’s reforms move our bail system away from a cash-based system to one that gives judges the necessary tools and guidelines to make informed decisions regarding pretrial release while honoring the purpose of bail – to assure someone shows up in court and does not pose a danger to the community.” 

Often times, defendants who cannot afford bail are incarcerated before trial with no ability to work, take care of their families, or receive important services such as addiction counseling.  In addition, the bill makes dangerousness hearings available in more cases and allows longer detention of defendants on a dangerousness finding, strengthening the mechanism for holding people who are actually dangerous.

The bill also addresses the issue of “fine time” where the state incarcerates individuals who are unable to pay court fines and fees, equivalent to a modern day “debtor’s prison.”  In November 2016, the Senate issued a report highlighting how these fees, including $150 fee for legal counsel even if a person has been ruled indigent, starts a vicious cycle of incarceration and punishing low income defendants.   The bill sets a schedule to reduce and eliminate these fines and fees over time to protect indigent defendants.  In addition, the bill reduces and eliminates monthly parole fees for individuals on parole.

State Senator Mike Barrett (D-Lexington) said: “Once somebody has served a sentence for a crime, they should be able to focus on getting training, finding a job, and settling back into a community.  This is hard to do when they’re saddled by what amounts to a bunch of user fees”

The bill would also make several changes to limit unnecessary entanglements with the criminal justice system through sentencing reform and the expansion of diversion. Massachusetts law currently uses the term “trafficking” to refer to the wholesaling of drugs and distinguishes trafficking based on the weight of the material sold.  Differentiating between drug retailers and wholesalers, the bill repeals mandatory minimum sentences for all retail drug-dealing offenses, and repeals existing mandatories for low-weight cocaine sales. Under the bill, one would have to sell over 100 grams of cocaine to be subject to a mandatory minimum sentence.

Recent polling has shown overwhelming public support for repealing mandatory minimums.  In a 2016 nationwide poll by the PEW Charitable Trusts found that nearly 80 percent of people support the repeal of mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders and nearly three-quarters support repeal of mandatory minimums for all offenses.[2]  In two separate Massinc polls, one in 2014 and one in 2017, “just 8 percent of voters prefer mandatory minimums, while the vast majorityare split between having judges refer to sentencing guidelines (46 percent) or giving judges complete discretion in sentencing (41 percent).”[3]

“The Jobs Not Jails Coalition thanks the Senate for repealing a number of the long sentences on those charges with mandatory minimums on non-violent drug charges,” said Lew Finfer, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, on behalf of the Jobs Not Jails Coalition. “When sheriffs in our state say 70% of prisoners have drug addiction issues, we need to get the people to drug treatment not to prison. And mandatory minimums fall disproportionately against people of color, which is a racial injustice. We’re glad the Senate took these steps to ensure justice and safety for all.”

The bill does not repeal mandatory minimums for opioid trafficking and provides that trafficking in higher weights of emerging, highly potent, synthetic opioids like fentanyl should be subject to the same mandatory minimums as natural opioids like heroin and morphine. The mandatory minimums that would not be repealed by this bill, including those for heroin trafficking and high-weight cocaine trafficking, account for approximately 2% of the sentenced drug cases resulting in incarceration.

“With this landmark bill, the Senate is beginning the dismantling of the failed war on drugs, mass incarceration, and punitive sentencing and incarceration,” said Senator Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton). “I’m grateful to Senator Brownsberger, Senator Creem, Senator Spilka, and Senate President Rosenberg for their hard work on this bill. As the Senate Chair of the Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus, I’m proud that this comprehensive bill includes initiatives I advocated for such as ending mandatory minimums for certain non-violent drug offenses, restorative justice and solitary confinement reform.”

In addition to sentencing reform, the bill would make diversion to a program, as an alternative to the criminal process, more available for young adults and for people with substance use disorders, while supporting the expansion of restorative justice approaches in appropriate cases. Through these proposed reforms, the bill seeks to help drug users access the treatment they need, increase the availability of meaningful diversion opportunities, and reduce preventable contact with the criminal justice system.

The bill also updates various areas of the law related to juvenile justice, to encourage rehabilitation and positive future outcomes, reduce recidivism and ensure fair treatment for young people. The bill raises the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 18 year olds, holding young adults accountable for their mistakes while ensuring access to developmentally appropriate rehabilitative and educational services.

“These long overdue reforms reflect best practices in criminal justice to divert people from the system, encourage rehabilitation and reduce crime,” said Senate Committee on Ways and Means Chair Senator Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland). “In particular, the juvenile justice reforms, like raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction and creating a process for expungement of misdemeanor records, ensure young people are treated fairly and appropriately. All young people deserve a second chance.  This bill provides them with access to the resources they need to get back on track and live successful, productive lives.”

Recognizing that juveniles have not reached full adult maturity, the bill expands opportunities for the sealing and expungement of records, including the creation of a process for the expungement of juvenile misdemeanor records. The bill also decriminalizes in-school disorderly conduct, to reduce the use of arrest as a tool of school discipline.

“The best way to keep people out of the criminal justice system is to make sure they never get in. We need to keep students out of the school to prison pipeline. When schools and school resource officers work together, fewer students will be arrested for non-violent and verbal misconduct,” said Senator Pat Jehlen (D-Somerville). "It is a major achievement to pass a criminal justice package of this magnitude, and I am proud of the Senate’s efforts to reform our broken system.”

In addition, the bill codifies the constitutional right of indigent juvenile offenders to counsel and expert assistance for parole hearings, as established by the 2015 Supreme Judicial Court decision in Diatchenko II. The bill creates a parent-child privilege to allow parents to help their children in the court system without being forced to testify about these conversations.

Since 2007, thirty-three states have reformed or revised their criminal justice system to reduce incarceration rates, cut costs, reduce recidivism, and improve outcomes.  Massachusetts reformed some sentencing provisions in 2012.

The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.

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