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The House takes further steps to reform criminal justice system

Despite changes in House bill, Senate legislators are eager to compromise

Karen Morales

The Massachusetts House passed its own version of a criminal justice reform bill last week, which has entered into a house-senate conference committee to reconcile differences with the Senate bill. The House version includes decreased larceny theft thresholds, CORI reform and juvenile expungement reform, but left out justice reinvestment and some mandatory minimum repeals.

Advocates and legislators weighed in on the bill’s chances and timeline for passage.

“The negotiation could last for months,” said Lew Finfer, co-director of Massachusetts Communities Action Network. “They can go in whichever direction, or come up with something in between the two bills.”

Rep. Russell Holmes said, “I thought it went well for the priorities of the Black and Latino Caucus and the Progressive Caucus.”

Holmes added, “We’re hoping we can have it stay closer to the House bill to get something across the finish line. We need bipartisan support to override a possible veto from the governor.”

“It’s a compromise that we can work with,” said Calvin Feliciano, political director for SEIU 509. “Anything less than what the House put out would be a big problem.”

Key differences

Among the differences between the two bills is the felony theft threshold on larceny. The Senate bill raised it from $250 to $1,500. The House bill only raised it to $1,000. “It hasn’t been raised in 30 years and at $250, we were the third-lowest in the U.S.,” said Finfer.

In the original Senate bill, a Justice Reinvestment Act was proposed which would redirect savings from expected reduced prison costs towards a job training and anti-recidivism fund. The House did not pass this act.

Raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 18 to 19 passed in the Senate, but did not pass in the House.

The Senate bill repeals more mandatory minimum sentences on drug charges than the House does.

The Senate repealed mandatory minimums on: class A, B and C drug distribution, including second or subsequent offenses, and drug distribution within school zones. It also raised the threshold for trafficking cocaine and crack from 18 grams to 99 grams.

The House repealed mandatory minimums only on class A, B and C drug distributions and any second or subsequent offenses. It did not raise the trafficking threshold for cocaine and crack.

Both versions of the bill passed the same CORI reforms, such as: allowing those with sealed records to say they have no record to qualify for housing and professional licenses; reducing 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; and allowing a conviction for resisting arrest to be sealed.

“Resisting arrest can be nonviolent, it can be mouthing off, giving police a wrong look or sometimes you can get thrown in anyway,” said Finfer. “It made no sense that you can get a CORI sealed for a violent crime, but can’t for a resisting arrest charge, which isn’t violent.”

Juvenile expungement passed in both bills, meaning certain criminal records for young adults ages 18–21 can be sealed after three years for misdemeanors, and seven years for felonies.

“More is needed, but these bills take important steps forward,” said Finfer.

Representative Holmes said, “I believe the House bill is better, in that we have attempted to balance criminal justice reforms with public safety.”

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