A KEY HOUSE LEADER signaled that his chamber is likely to respond to a sweeping Senate criminal justice bill with legislation that tackles many of the issues in the Senate measure that reform advocates have been pushing.
Advocates for criminal justice reform have been pressing House officials to follow the Senate’s lead, and Assistant House Majority Leader Byron Rushing indicated that many elements of the Senate bill, including mandatory minimum sentences, would be addressed, even if there are differences on some specifics.
Rushing said he believes “the House is working toward a bill that will address most of the priorities.” The House bill is expected to be released on Monday.
The bill passed last month by the Senate includes provisions that would eliminate several mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted on drug distribution charges; create more pre-trial opportunities to divert people away from the criminal justice system; establish a system of regular reviews for those being held in solitary confinement in state prisons; and eliminate some of the fines and fees that reform advocates say often trip up offenders who are trying to get on the right path.
The bill also calls for raising the age of majority for most crimes to 19, meaning most cases involving 18-year-olds would be handled in juvenile courts, and it would decriminalize consensual sex between young people who are close in age.
Nine of the state’s 11 district attorneys signed a sharply-worded letter last month to House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg, strongly objecting to many provisions of the Senate bill. The DAs said some provisions of the bill merit consideration, but argued the bill overall “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.”
Gov. Charlie Baker has also expressed serious reservations with the Senate bill’s repeal of mandatory drug sentences.
Rushing suggested that the “raise the age” language and the provision in the Senate bill decriminalizing sex among young people don’t have the sort of broad support needed to move a bill forward. “I don’t think it’s helpful in a legislative process to put up too many things in a bill that people are all over the map on,” he said. But, he suggested, many of the core pieces of the Senate bill – including court diversion, repeal of mandatory minimum sentences, and prison conditions – seemed likely to be part the House bill, even if there are differences on some specifics.
Rep. Claire Cronin, the House co-chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, who has been drafting the bill, has been mum on her thinking and has not returned multiple calls over the last several months.
In April, Rushing spearheaded a State House rally of reform-minded lawmakers – mostly House members – and declared that it was time for the Legislature to enact comprehensive changes. “We believe we are ready, in this session, to address the whole spectrum of criminal justice processes,” he said, “from the front door – reducing incarceration – through the middle – addressing incarceration conditions and what goes on in prison, leading to their successful reintegration in our communities – as well as the end, reducing recidivism.”
Last month, DeLeo announced that retired Supreme Judicial Court chief justice Roderick Ireland would serve as an unpaid policy adviser to him on criminal justice reform matters.
DeLeo has been circumspect in signaling where he stands on criminal justice issues. But some reform advocates took the Ireland appointment as a positive sign, given the long arc of his career, which started as a legal services attorney and included the cofounding in the early 1970s of Roxbury Defenders Committee, a nonprofit established to provide free legal services to indigent clients. In 1997, Ireland became the first African-American appointed to the state’s highest court.
In February, DeLeo, Rosenberg, Baker, and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants unveiled a bill allowing more prisoners to earn “good time” credits that shave time off sentences and providing more programming for inmates while incarcerated. The legislation, the culmination of a review process coordinated by the Council of State Governments, formed the starting point for the Legislature’s criminal justice deliberations, but some advocates feared lawmakers would not go beyond that narrow piece of legislation this session.
“A year ago, no one thought there was going to be anything but the CSG bill,” said Rushing. “What the advocates accomplished was to have a multifaceted bill before us,” he said, crediting the wide range of groups that have pressured lawmakers to deliver more comprehensive reform.
“I’m actually pretty hopeful,” said Rep. Mary Keefe of Worcester, a cochair of the Legislature’s Harm Reduction Caucus. “I don’t think that the bill that comes out of the House will mirror what the Senate is putting forward. But if we got 80 percent, I think that’s pretty good.”