SAYING THE TIME is right for the state to take a look at sweeping criminal justice reforms, a group of Democratic state senators is urging the Legislature to take up bills addressing everything from mandatory minimum drug sentences to fines and fees that lawmakers say are unfairly leading some people to spend time behind bars simply because they can’t afford the charges.
The menu of proposals rolled out to reporters this morning in the Senate president’s office comes ahead of the expected release next week of legislation based on a lengthy review of criminal justice policies coordinated by the nonpartisan Council of State Governments.
That review, which was launched more than a year ago at the invitation of Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, is expected to produce legislation centered on prisoner reentry, probation and parole practices, and other policies that officials hope will help drive down recidivism rates. A third of those released from state prisons are reincarcerated within three years.
Critics have said by focusing only on the so-called “back end” of the criminal justice system when offenders are completing a sentence that the review is too narrow and has missed opportunities to rethink sentencing practices and other policies that are driving incarceration rates at the front end of the system.
The Senate presentation seemed designed to lay down a marker in advance of next week’s proposal saying the Council of State Governments plan should not define the limits of criminal justice reform that the Legislature will take up this session.
There’s “a much bigger picture of criminal justice reform,” said Sen. Will Brownsberger, the cochairman of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. “This is the year where I think the stars may align for us to make progress on a lot of these issues.”
Among the bills promoted by senators was a proposal to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. Critics have said mandatory minimum sentences prevent judges from considering the unique circumstances of each case, and have they have pointed out that the sentences disproportionately fall on blacks and Hispanic defendants.
Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington said the state needs to reform the system that saddles offenders with fees and fines they can’t always afford. He said the state faces a “quiet constitutional crisis” of people going to jail because they can’t afford fees imposed in the criminal justice system. He cited a recent Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee report that identified 105 times in 2015 that people were held in jail solely because of their inability to pay fees in three Massachusetts counties.
Sen. Cynthia Creem of Newton and Sen. Karen Spilka of Ashland touted a bill they are cosponsoring that would phase in an increase in the age of jurisdiction for juvenile courts from 18 to 21. Spilka cited research showing that brain development isn’t complete until someone reaches their early or mid 20s.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston urged raising the threshold for a larceny charge to be deemed a felony to $1,500. She said the current $250 threshold dates to the 1980s. Under the current statute, she said, someone could receive up to five years in prison and a $25,000 fine for stealing something worth “less than the value of a cellphone.”
Sen Jamie Eldridge of Acton is promoting legislation that would expand the use of “restorative justice” sessions as alternatives to standard trials resulting in a criminal record. Under this approach, offenders and victims voluntarily meet to try to arrive at a plan that will “heal the harm that’s been caused to the victim,” said Eldridge, which could also include community service or other measures.
“It’s a very big concept that exists in many countries and a growing number of states, and we’re hoping to bring it here to Massachusetts,” he said. Eldridge said the system is being used in some places in Middlesex County.
A big question looming over the criminal justice debate is whether the more moderate House and Republican Gov. Charlie Baker will be receptive to more far-reaching reform proposals from the liberal-leaning Senate.
Senators emphasized the bipartisan nature of criminal reform momentum in other states. There has been a growing agreement between liberals and conservatives that harsh criminal justice policies put in place in the 1980s and 1990s are not serving states well. Corrections costs are eating away at budgets while punitive sanctions have lead the US to now account for about one-quarter of the world’s prisoners while only home to 5 percent of the world’s population.
“Red states have been doing this for several years now,” said Chang-Diaz. “This is not radical stuff that we’re talking about.”
What’s likely to unfold over the coming months is a delicate dance among the Legislature’s two branches and the governor, with Gants, the SJC chief justice, watching intently and looking for opportunities to judiciously weigh in.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo told reporters this afternoon he has fully expected legislation to be filed “to take us further” than the Council of State Governments proposal. He said all bills will “get a full hearing.”
Chang-Diaz said today that she and other members of the Legislature’s Black and Latino caucus met with Baker last month. “I am encouraged by what I heard in that meeting, but I’m not taking my foot off of the gas because he did make a campaign pledge, and I think we should hold him to it,” she said.
Chang-Diaz was referring to a candidate questionnaire Baker completed during his 2014 campaign in which he indicated he supported repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.
Baker’s press secretary, Billy Pitman, said the governor believes reforming mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses could be part of an overall approach to rethinking how the system deals with substance abuse issues.
“The governor will carefully review any legislation reaching his desk,” Pitman said in a statement.