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Justice bill passes in Senate

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO

The state Senate passed a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill last week that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes, eliminate fees charged to defendants, and redirect savings from the expected reduction in the state’s prison population toward drug treatment, job training and job creation programs aimed at rehabilitating people leaving prison.

By a vote of 27 to 10, the senators voted in the bill during a late-night session that ended after 1 a.m. The bill’s passage comes after a years-long push by criminal justice reform activists to repeal mandatory minimum sentences and reduce the state’s prison population.

“Today the Senate took real action to stand with communities across the commonwealth and end the vicious cycles of incarceration and crime,” said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz in a press statement. “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.”

Activists have long complained that the Massachusetts prison population has swollen with nonviolent drug offenders serving mandatory sentences. For many who are in the throes of addiction, incarceration does little to help, says Calvin Feliciano, political director for SEIU 509.

“It doesn’t solve the problem,” he told the Banner. “It criminalizes people who are petty dealers. It’s the wrong way to address the problem.”

Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins said the bill’s emphasis on treatment of drug addiction over incarceration could go a long way toward reducing the state’s costly prison population.

“Almost 70 percent of my population is incarcerated because of their habit,” he said.

Tompkins also praised the bill’s bail reform measures, noting the inefficiency of the current system.

“If someone can’t pay $100 or $250, the commonwealth picks up the tab for thousands of dollars to incarcerate that person,” he said.

Under the Senate bill, possession with intent to distribute drugs including cocaine will no longer trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. Second offenses and drug violations within 300 yards of a school also no longer trigger mandatory sentences.

The threshold for felony larceny, which was last set at $250 in the 1980s, will increase to $1,500 under the bill.

Judges would be required to assess whether defendants are a flight risk or a danger and determine how much they can reasonably pay before determining bail amounts. The bill would also eliminate fees and fines charged to indigent defendants, including those for public counsel or parole.

Included in the bill is a requirement that inmates in solitary confinement be given access to showers and books and be evaluated by mental health professionals.

The House will take up the bill next. Advocates say the Senate’s reform measures will face stiffer resistance from the more conservative state representatives, who are more tightly controlled by legislative leadership.

Differing opinions

Criminal justice reform has long been a priority of members of the Massachusetts Legislative Black and Latino Caucus and the Progressive Caucus. The Senate bill, sponsored by Progressive Caucus member William Brownsberger, goes a long way toward achieving the criminal justice reforms for which community activists have been advocating.

“This is a significant step in the right direction,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Racial Justice Program. “There’s a lot more that could be done.”

Hall noted that selling heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl still would trigger mandatory minimum sentences.

Many prosecutors and police officials in Massachusetts are in favor of mandatory minimum sentences. Prosecutors often use lengthy mandatory sentences for offenses such as trafficking drugs in a school zone as a bargaining tool. Facing a mandatory five-year sentence, defendants will often plead guilty to a lesser charge rather than contest charges with a trial.

Nine of the state’s 11 district attorneys penned a letter panning the Senate bill.

“This undermines the cause and pursuit of fair and equal justice for all, largely ignores the interests of victims of crime, and puts at risk the undeniable strides and unparalleled success of Massachusetts’ approach to public safety and criminal justice for at least the last 25 years,” the district attorneys wrote.

Hall says locking up nonviolent drug offenders is not effective at combatting the state’s drug problem.

“There’s no research that supports the notion that mandatory minimums prevent overdoses or reduce drug use,” he said. “They’re trying the same thing over and not getting different results.”

Activists say they expect that the district attorneys will have more sway over members of the House, a more conservative body than the Senate. Hall said the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences might be a sticking point for the House.

Tompkins echoed what appears to be a prevailing sentiment among criminal justice reform advocates: that the bill is only the first step in a longer push for reform.

“The longest journey begins with a single step,” he said. “This is a first step.”