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NEWS BRIEF: Mass. Senate passes criminal justice reform

Among the provisions included in the bill are repealing ineffective mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, allowing for compassionate release for infirm inmates, and reforms to the juvenile justice system.

Massachusetts Senate passes criminal justice reform

Boston — State Sen. Adam G. Hinds, D-Pittsfield, has announced that the Massachusetts Senate voted 27-10 Friday to pass a comprehensive criminal justice reform package that updates decades-old criminal sentencing laws to improve outcomes of the criminal justice system. Among the provisions included in the bill are repealing ineffective mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, reducing and eliminating over burdensome fees and fines, reforming the bail system, allowing for compassionate release for infirmed inmates, and reforms to the juvenile justice system.

In preparation for this debate Hinds met with the three district attorneys and four sheriffs serving the communities of his Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden District, as well as multiple stakeholders focused on various criminal justice topics across western Massachusetts. Based on those conversations, Hinds crafted two important amendments that were adopted by the Senate to provide for bias-free municipal police training and the statewide collection of LGBTQ data:

  • Hinds was a part of a bipartisan effort which led to the adoption of a redrafted amendment that directs the municipal police training committee to establish and implement an in-person unconscious or implicit bias training program for municipal, metropolitan and state police as well as bias-free policing techniques. Developed in consultation with the NAACP – Berkshire County Branch, Hinds’ original amendment was filed with the purpose of ensuring that law enforcement officers do not make policing decisions on the basis of stereotyping. Last summer, the U.S. Department of Justice implemented similar agency-wide implicit bias training.
  • The redrafted amendment, sponsored by Hinds and state Sens. Bruce E. Tarr, R-Gloucester; assistant Majority Leader Cynthia Creem, D-Newton; and Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, includes Hinds’ language on implicit bias and requires special police training with regards to mental health illnesses, as well as de-escalation tactics, all for the purpose of building community trust and confidence with law enforcement. To fund these new training requirements, a Municipal Police Training Fund was established, funded by .5 percent of the revenue generated by the state excise tax on marijuana sales. The redrafted amendment was adopted with a unanimous 37–0 vote.
  • Hinds also worked with Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, to secure language modeled after the federal Pride Act, a bill filed by U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-New York, that seeks to collect sexual orientation and gender information where appropriate. That bill has gained considerable support from the LGBTQ rights community nationwide. The Hinds/Cyr amendment directs the state’s Registry of Vital Records and Statistics and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to jointly collect sex and gender identity information of a decedent when a death occurs motivated by a hate crime, acts of criminal violence, suicide, suspicious circumstances or death while in custody of a state prison or correctional facility.

The amendment was filed with the support of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, which has been working to encourage state governments to pass similar legislation in response to events that have been followed by national media like the deadly shooting at Orlando’s Pulse night club. Victims of the Orlando shooting were not recorded that night in the National Violent Death Reporting System, because it collects limited information on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Hinds/Cyr amendment is a step towards closing the “data gap” for the LGBTQ community, helping ensure that the needs of this community are met, to understand existing disparities and to implement policies to deter future discrimination and hate crimes directed against LGBTQ persons.

The bill, S.2185, An Act Relative to Criminal Justice Reform, sponsored by state Sen. Will Brownsberger, D-Belmont, Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, is the result of many months of work researching best practices, common sense solutions, procedures and policies that have been effective in other states to produce legislation that will enhance diversion from the criminal justice system, repeal outdated mandatory minimums for low level drug offenders, lower costs, and produce better outcomes.

As part of a nationwide trend in addressing the inequities in the bail system, the bill reforms the current bail system of the Commonwealth by setting strict guidelines for judges when setting bail for a defendant. The bill rewrites the existing bail statute to create a clear road map for decision-making consistent with the Supreme Judicial Court’s recent ruling that cash bail must be affordable. The bill goes beyond that guidance to further strengthen the procedural barriers to setting bail that is higher than a defendant can afford, and to ensure individuals are not held solely because they are unable to pay. In addition, the bill makes dangerousness hearings available in more cases and allows longer detention of defendants on a dangerousness finding, strengthening the mechanism for holding people who are actually dangerous.

The bill also addresses the issue of “fine time,” where the state incarcerates individuals who are unable to pay court fines and fees, equivalent to a modern day debtor’s prison.  In November 2016, the Senate issued a report highlighting how these fees, including a $150 fee for legal counsel even if a person has been ruled indigent, starts a vicious cycle of incarceration and punishing low-income defendants.  The bill sets a schedule to reduce and eliminate these fines and fees over time to protect indigent defendants. In addition, the bill reduces and eliminates monthly parole fees for individuals on parole.

The bill would also make several changes to limit unnecessary entanglements with the criminal justice system through sentencing reform and the expansion of diversion. Massachusetts law currently uses the term “trafficking” to refer to the wholesaling of drugs and distinguishes trafficking based on the weight of the material sold. Differentiating between drug retailers and wholesalers, the bill repeals mandatory minimum sentences for all retail drug-dealing offenses, and repeals existing mandatories for low-weight cocaine sales. Under the bill, one would have to sell over 100 grams of cocaine to be subject to a mandatory minimum sentence.

Notably, the bill does not repeal mandatory minimums for opioid trafficking and provides that trafficking in higher weights of emerging, highly potent, synthetic opioids like fentanyl should be subject to the same mandatory minimums as natural opioids like heroin and morphine. The mandatory minimums that would not be repealed by this bill, including those for heroin trafficking and high-weight cocaine trafficking, account for approximately 2 percent of the sentenced drug cases resulting in incarceration.

In addition to sentencing reform, the bill would make diversion to a program, as an alternative to the criminal process, more available for young adults and for people with substance use disorders while supporting the expansion of restorative justice approaches in appropriate cases. Through these proposed reforms, the bill seeks to help drug users access the treatment they need, increase the availability of meaningful diversion opportunities and reduce preventable contact with the criminal justice system.

The bill also updates various areas of the law related to juvenile justice, to encourage rehabilitation and positive future outcomes, reduce recidivism and ensure fair treatment for young people. The bill raises the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 18-year-olds, holding young adults accountable for their mistakes while ensuring access to developmentally appropriate rehabilitative and educational services.

Recognizing that juveniles have not reached full adult maturity, the bill expands opportunities for the sealing and expungement of records, including the creation of a process for the expungement of juvenile misdemeanor records. The bill also decriminalizes in-school disorderly conduct to reduce the use of arrest as a tool of school discipline.

In addition, the bill codifies the constitutional right of indigent juvenile offenders to counsel and expert assistance for parole hearings, as established by the 2015 Supreme Judicial Court decision in Diatchenko II. The bill creates a parent-child privilege to allow parents to help their children in the court system without being forced to testify about their conversations.

Since 2007, 33 states have reformed or revised their criminal justice systems to reduce incarceration rates, cut costs, reduce recidivism and improve outcomes. Massachusetts reformed some sentencing provisions in 2012.

The bill will now move to the House of Representatives for consideration.


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