By Audrey Cooney
Massachusetts Senate Democrats have introduced a package of new bills on criminal justice reform, one of their most ambitious legislative pushes ever on this issue in the state.
The proposed bills, advocates and Democratic lawmakers argue, would help alleviate excessive hardship placed on drug addicts, the poor, and young people by the criminal justice system. The legislation involves the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, changes to the bail system, and the creation of a rule to expunge the criminal records of individuals convicted of a felony before the age of 21.
“What we’re doing now is not working,” said Susan Tordella, a member of End Mass Incarceration Together (EMIT), a task force affiliated with the Universal Unitarian Mass Action Network. “But what’s good is that we have the power to change it.”
All three bills have been referred to the Joint Committee of the Judiciary for hearings.
Here’s a closer look at these bills:
Elimination of Mandatory Minimums for Drug Offenses
Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, has filed a bill to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Democratic members of the Massachusetts legislature have advocated for such a move for years, arguing that mandatory minimums force judges to hand out unreasonably long sentences. According to Tordella, only one or two percent of criminal cases ever go to trial. In most instances, she said, defendants feel intimidated into taking plea deals in order to avoid lengthy jail sentences imposed by mandatory minimum sentences.
“Most drug dealers are small time, and that’s who we’re punishing,” said Tordella. She described mandatory minimums as “blanket statements” that prevent judges from evaluating all the facts of the case.
Changes to the Bail System
There is also a new bill that would reshape how judges determine bail amounts. Under the proposed system, bail would be based on an individual’s risk of flight and chance of returning to court. It was sponsored by Sen. Ken Donnelly, D-Arlington, who died in April.
The bill was motivated by the belief that the ability to pay should never determine whether someone is released from jail or not, said Dave Swanson, who had served as a legal advisor to Donnelly.
Swanson cited the disparate impact a cash-based bail system can have on the poor, who so often are from minority populations. By contrast, he said, an individual who poses a legitimate danger to society could potentially be released simply because they can afford bail.
This bill deals mostly with bail reform, but includes several changes to the pretrial process. It would ccreate, for example, a new division within the office of probation that would provide support services like counseling for substance abuse as well as education and workforce training programs.These services are typically offered to individuals only after they have been convicted. Swanson argued thee is a need to provide the right support starting at a person’s initial introduction to the criminal justice system, not after they have served their time.
The proposed bill also calls for the creation of what is termed a “Risk Assessment Information Office.” It would compile data from pretrial detainees to improve the risk assessment process, allowing judges to make more accurate decisions regarding bail.
“We want to make sure that the court system and the judicial officers within it are acting with the best information possible,” Swanson said.
Expungement of Juvenile Felony Records
Sen. Karen E. Spilka, D-Ashland, chair of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, has sponsored a bill that would allow those convicted of a felony before the age of 21 to petition to have the charges expunged from their records. The right to petition would hinge on whether they have completed their sentence and avoided any other convictions. The bill also calls for misdemeanor charges to be automatically expunged when individuals finish serving their sentences.
“All young people deserve a second chance and the support services and resources they need to get back on track, lead successful adult lives, and positively contribute to their communities,” said Spilka in an emailed statement. “Youthful offenders have not reached full adult maturity, yet mistakes they make at a young age can follow them into adulthood. One of my priorities [for] this legislative session is long overdue juvenile justice reform, including provisions like expungement.”
Prosecutorial Pushback on Proposed Bills
While state prosecutors support some criminal justice reform, they remain in favor of mandatory minimums. Mandatory minimums for drug offenses affect fewer people than activists make it seem, said Jake Wark, press secretary for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley. The minimums apply only to drug traffickers and not to drug users, Wark said, and are a public safety measure.
“We are now in the midst of an opioid addiction crisis that has [claimed] three times more lives than murder and car crashes combined,” Wark said, citing a statistic from 2015. “District Attorney Conley does not believe that more lenient sentences for the people trafficking in those deadly substances would ameliorate the public health crisis.”
According to Wark, Conley is in favor of other reforms to the criminal justice system. His office has in the past suggested increasing the weight of drug quantities that constitute a drug trafficking charge and decreasing the penalties for drug trafficking convictions, measures that would lead to fewer convictions.
“The criminal justice system can and should evolve,” said Wark, adding that Conley is also interested in reforms to the state’s bail system.
Tordella echoed that sentiment and said change “takes time.” But she hopes that citizens will continue to pressure their representatives with phone calls, letters, and even in-office visits.
“That’s how we get change,” she said. “Our legislators know we support this change and we’re against just ‘lock em up and throw away the key.’”