Mandatory sentences targeted in plan to change drug laws

State House News Service photoSen. William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, and dozens of lawmakers rallied Thursday at the Statehouse to call attention to key provisions of the judicial reform bill.

BOSTON — State Senate leaders are touting proposed changes to criminal laws that would repeal mandatory sentences for minor drug offenses, lower probation fees, and increase the threshold for felony larceny. 

Supporters of the proposal, filed by Sen. William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, and backed by dozens of lawmakers, rallied Thursday at the Statehouse to call attention to key provisions of the bill, which could be taken up by the Senate in the next few weeks.

Brownsberger said the proposal aims at helping ex-convicts adjust to life on the outside, while also keeping people out of prison.

"We're locking up four or five times more people than we were 40 years ago," he said. "However we got here, there's no question that in communities of poverty incarceration itself has become a problem. We need to cut chains that are holding people back when they're trying to get back up on their feet."

House lawmakers are also working on a package of reforms, which would likely have to be reconciled with the Senate version.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, D-Winthrop, has said he wants criminal justice reforms focused on keeping people out of jail through drug court programs, and education and training inside prisons that reduce the chances of people returning.

DeLeo’s office recently teamed up with former state Supreme Court Justice Roderick Ireland to work on the House version of the reforms.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has expressed concerns with some aspects of the Senate plan, particularly those easing statutory rape laws.

“We have a long way to go between where we are now and the end of this process," Baker told reporters Wednesday.

Baker has filed his own plan, which includes a program that would allow convicts to earn time off from their sentences.

Many proposals in the Senate bill stem from a report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, following a year-long review of the Massachusetts system.

The report calls for incentives like earned time off a sentence and opportunities for prisoners to participate in programs that could help them reintegrate into society, such as skills training, behavioral therapy or substance abuse counseling.

While many prisoners are released on parole or probation, the report's authors found at least two of five have no supervision upon release.

Reform proposals

But dozens of criminal justice reform proposals offered by individual lawmakers have been tucked into the package. They include a proposal raising the age of offenders sent to juvenile court from 18 to 19.

Criminal justice advocates also want lawmakers to focus on sentencing reform to keep people out of jail in the first place. Their agenda includes eliminating required sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, which has been a major sticking point.

Lew Finfer, a spokesman for the Jobs Not Jails Coalition, which advocates for criminal justice reform, supports many provisions of the Senate bill.

"There's a few things where we'd like to go further, such as mandatory minimums," he said. "But overall it's a pretty good bill."

In 2012, lawmakers rolled back minimum sentences for some drug crimes. In addition, reforms at the time raised the amount of drugs that triggered such sentences, and increased the distance from school zones that triggered mandatory minimums.

Although the state’s prison population has grown 15 percent over the past decade, fewer people serve time for serious drug crimes, according to the Department of Correction.

A recent survey by MassINC Polling Group found a majority of voters support major changes in criminal laws to emphasize prevention and rehabilitation over prison.

Fewer than 8 percent of respondents support mandatory sentences, the poll found, while 87 percent support giving judges discretion over sentencing.

District attorneys have resisted plans to repeal mandatory sentences. Easing the state's drug laws, they argue, will hamstring efforts to arrest and prosecute narcotics traffickers.

Deterring crimes

Tougher sentencing, law enforcement experts say, significantly deters violent crime.

Advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Prisoners’ Legal Services say the Senate plan "doesn’t go far enough" to keep drug addicts from getting sent to jail instead of treatment.

“While this bill would eliminate mandatory minimums for many drug offenses, it perpetuates a myth that the ‘war on drugs’ is effective policy by maintaining minimums for opioid trafficking and adding new mandatory sentences,” the groups said in a joint statement issued Thursday.

Some provisions in the Senate plan actually seek to raise penalties for offenses such as solicitation of murder and corporate manslaughter, and would set mandatory sentences for possession of deadly opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil.

Other provisions of the overhaul highlighted on Thursday include lowering or eliminating probation and court fees, and shortening the waiting period to seal an individual’s criminal record from 10 to seven years for felonies and five to three years for misdemeanors.

Pauline Quirion, a lawyer and director of the criminal records sealing project at Greater Boston Legal Services, said reducing the years it takes to seal a criminal record and lowering probation fees will help ex-convicts get their lives back on track.

"We have a system that supposed to allow people to move forward by sealing their cases, but the waits are simply too long," she said. "If you have that mark on your record, you can't get a job or housing, so you're not going to be able to move forward."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com

 

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