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House sets sights on criminal justice reform

Black and Latino Caucus members take lead role in shaping legislation

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
House sets sights on criminal justice reform
State representatives Byron Rushing, Frank Moran, Chynah Tyler, Jeffrey Sanchez, Carlos Gonzalez, Evandro Carvalho, Jose Tosado, Russell Holmes and Bud Williams in Sanchez’s office.

Members of the Legislative Black and Latino Caucus are backing a House criminal justice reform bill they say would repeal some mandatory minimum sentences, give youthful offenders and others better opportunities to seal and expunge their criminal records and put limits on the use of solitary confinement in state prisons.

Speaking to reporters in the State House office of House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sánchez, the lawmakers said the legislation, crafted with their input and that of criminal justice reform advocates, will have far-reaching consequences in communities affected by crime and incarceration.

“This is a monumental piece of legislation,” Sánchez said. “This is very personal for a lot people. There’s been a lot of people in our community who have been subjected to real challenges in the criminal justice system and this is a way to try and repair those injustices.”

Good chance of passing

The reforms are not as far-reaching as the legislation approved Oct. 27 by the Senate, but the Black and Latino Caucus members said it has a good chance of obtaining the 81 votes needed to pass the 160-member House.

“We’re asking every Republican in the House to vote on this bill,” said state Rep. Russell Holmes. “If we ask for too much, we won’t pass this.”

Sánchez said the legislation may need to withstand a veto by Governor Charlie Baker, who has not commented on the reforms passed by the Senate.

“We still don’t know where the governor stands on these issues,” Sánchez said.

The legislation establishes a process for expunging certain juvenile and criminal records for young adults ages 18–21 without a waiting period, not including cases of deaths, sexual violence, or dangerous weapons.

Sánchez said the provisions for expungement will provide many in Massachusetts with a second chance at finding gainful employment and housing.

“This is the first time ever there is expungement language proposed anywhere. I’m personally ecstatic about it,” he said.

Amendments may be filed

Neither the Senate bill nor the bill being advanced in the House contain language mandating that police departments compile and make public data on police stops of pedestrians and motorists by race. Such provisions have been sought by Black and Latino Caucus members.

Rep. Byron Rushing said Caucus members will have the opportunity to file amendments, including one requiring disclosure.

“We’re getting ready for the debate on this bill as a Caucus,” Rushing said. “This certainly touches on all our priorities. We have to look at the details and make decisions about whether we want to attempt to amend this.”

Rep. Evandro Carvalho said he will file an amendment to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes committed in so-called school zones — a 300-foot radius around school buildings — that triggers an automatic 2 ½-year sentence. Prosecutors favor the law because the threat of the long sentences it carries gives them leverage to force defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges, eliminating the need to go to trial.

“The school zone is the most impactful of the mandatory minimums,” Carvalho told the Banner.

The House will debate the criminal justice reform bill next week for two days, Sánchez said. It will then go into a conference committee where House and Senate members have the opportunity to iron out the differences between their bills. The bill will not likely come up for a vote in the House before the Legislature takes its holiday recess.

“I expect the members of the conference committee will work hard to get this done as quickly as possible,” Sánchez said.

While Black and Latino Caucus members have been advocating criminal justice reform legislation for several years, House and Senate Leadership began the process of crafting legislation earlier this year by acting on a report from the Council of State Governments, a national organization led by state officials. That group’s Massachusetts affiliates proposed legislation aimed at reducing recidivism and paring down the state’s prison population through measures including reducing sentences for good behavior and increasing funding for anti-recidivism programing in prisons.

Criminal justice reform advocates fought vociferously for more comprehensive reforms to keep people out of prison, including the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences. At one point, activists with the Jobs not Jails coalition marched out of a CSG meeting and demonstrated outside. During the January Martin Luther King Breakfast in Boston, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz took legislative leadership to task for moving too slowly on comprehensive criminal justice reforms.

The Senate bill passed last month represented the first concrete victory for criminal justice reform advocates, and advocates are hopeful the House will follow suit.

“We are pleased preliminarily that the House has put out a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill addressing many areas of a big broken system,” said Lew Finfer, executive director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, a member of the Jobs Not Jails Coalition.

“Currently there are serious problems, with too many people with drug addiction going to prison instead of treatment, great racial disparities on who goes to prison, [and] recidivism,” he said.

Finfer said the coalition would likely advocate for amendments to increase the threshold for a felony conviction from the $750 in the House bill to the $1,500 in the Senate bill and would continue to push for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences.

One significant difference between the Senate and House bill is that the latter moved two drugs — carfentanil and fentanyl — to Class A status, and strengthened the current Fentanyl trafficking law by changing the threshold amount from 10 net grams of fentanyl to 10 grams of a mixture containing fentanyl. There is also an added minimum penalty of three-and-a-half years for distributing the drugs.

Making it the strongest law in the nation for trafficking carfentanil if passed, the legislation would establish a penalty for anyone who knowingly traffics the drug in any amount by imprisonment for three-and-a-half years to 20 years.

“It makes sense for us to do something to state, ‘We know you’re killing people,’” said Sánchez in reference to carfentanil traffickers. “Their disregard for human life is profound.”

The House legislation built upon CORI reforms that would make applying for jobs, housing and professional licenses more accessible for people with criminal records. The bill reduces the wait time to seal a conviction from 10 years to seven years for a felony and from five years to three years for a misdemeanor. It also allows a conviction for resisting arrest to be sealed.

“The sooner ex-offenders find employment, the less likely it is for them to commit another crime,” said Sánchez.

Another noteworthy part of the House bill would increase humane treatment of inmates held in solitary confinement by setting limits on the length of time individuals can be held in solitary and prohibiting the use of segregation for pregnant women and juveniles.

Also proposed in the bill are data collection initiatives to evaluate policy changes, the ability to reduce or waive fines and fees based on “substantial financial hardship” and the requirement that a person’s financial resources be taken into account when setting a bail.