THE HOUSE MOVED on Wednesday to form a conference committee with senators to resolve differences between the two branches on a criminal justice reform bill that earlier this month seemed to be moving quickly toward final passage.
The bill would repeal a 1989 statute that mandated the suspension of the driver’s license of anyone convicted of a drug-related crime. The law was enacted during the tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and early 1990s and was part of a series of moves that stiffened sanctions for many criminal offenses, including drug crimes. A national reappraisal of those laws is now underway, driven by concern over soaring incarceration rates over the last several decades, disparate impacts on racial minorities, and the laws’ impact on low-income communities and families.
The driver’s license sanction is now widely seen as a particularly counterproductive legacy of that era, since it punishes offenders beyond any jail sentence or probation monitoring they may be put under, and hamstrings their ability to find a job and fully reintegrate into society once released.
There is general agreement among legislators, Gov. Charlie Baker, and Attorney General Maura Healey to pull back from the 1989 law. But the Senate and House have approved different versions of a repeal measure.
Last fall, the Senate unanimously approved legislation to repeal the statute. Earlier this month, the House also voted unanimously to repeal the law, but included a Republican-sponsored amendment to maintain the license revocation for those convicted of drug trafficking, the most serious level of drug charges.
The Senate further amended the bill by removing the carve-out for trafficking offenses and sent the measure back to the House. The House rejected that change today and opted instead to form a conference committee to work out differences between the two branches.
Named to the conference committee from the House were Rep. John Fernandes, a Milford Democrat and House chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, William Straus, Democrat from Mattapoiset, and Bradford Hill, an Ipswich Republican.
The Senate must now appoint three members to work with them on the bill.
Sen. Harriette Chandler, a cosponsor of the bill with Rep. Elizabeth Malia, said earlier this month that House amendment would only serve to hamper those convicted of drug crimes from turning to more positive pursuits once they’ve served time in prison.
“I was surprised and I was disappointed,” Chandler, a Worcester Democrat, said of the House amendment. “I felt it was going back to the same kind of thinking that got us to this place originally.”
A year after the state passed the 1989 measure, Congress passed a law that withheld a portion of a state’s federal highway funding unless it suspended drug offenders’ licenses for at least six months. States were allowed to opt out of the federal provision, and most have, including every other New England state.
Under the state law, the license suspension ranges from one to five years, depending on the severity of the drug charges. Offenders must also pay hundreds of dollars in fines to have their license reinstated.
Those pushing to repeal the statute say the license revocation law only makes it harder for ex-offenders to get to work or carry out family responsibilities such as getting children to child care or school – and makes it more likely that they will become part of the state’s 40 percent recidivism rate.
“If we wanted to create a mechanism to push people back to illegal drug use and into trouble, this is it,” Malia, a Boston Democrat, told CommonWealth last summer. “It’s insane. It’s totally counterproductive. It’s terrible public policy.”
House Republican leaders say they support the overall goal of the repeal, but not the entire bill as originally written. “We generally buy into that, but we think a distinction should be made for some offenses, for the top tier, which is drug traffickers,” said Rep. Brad Jones, the House minority leader. “These traffickers are purveyors of death and destruction.”
Advocates say there is no rationale for maintaining the suspension statute for trafficking.
“I would challenge anyone to find data or evidence that keeping someone who was convicted of trafficking from having their driver’s license somehow enhances public safety,” said Barbara Dougan, who directs the Massachusetts office of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “It sounds like a flashback to outdated thinking.”
In 2014, 2,275 people faced license suspension in Massachusetts because of a drug conviction. It’s not clear how many people would still face suspension if the sanction were left in place for traffickers.
The license suspension applies regardless of whether an automobile was involved in the drug crime. Advocates point out there is no similar statute suspending driving privileges for those convicted of other crimes, including serious violent offenses.
“If a person serves their time for a crime, shouldn’t they have an opportunity to move forward with their life when their time is served,” said Cassandra Bensahih, director of Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Advocating for Community Advancement, a Worcester-based organization that has spearheaded the repeal effort. “We are hoping this amendment will go away and we can get a bill without these changes.”