Massachusetts began the process of reforming its criminal justice system recently when legislators released a comprehensive criminal justice bill. The bill is a result of a compromise between a six-member conference committee that joined the separate reform bills passed in the House and Senate last year. While the bill still has to pass the House and Senate, it is widely expected to be signed into law in the next few weeks.
The new bill is comprehensive and widespread in its reach. First, the law reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some “low-level” drug offenses, including first and second offenses for possession of cocaine. In contrast, fentanyl and carfentanil, the powerful opioids responsible for many deaths across the country, traffickers will now face a mandatory minimum prison sentence of three and a half years. Individuals possessing (without the intent to distribute) these synthetic opioids will also be subject to enhanced penalties. Previously, a loophole in the state law required 10 grams of pure fentanyl to be present in order for a successful possession conviction, which was problematic because the drug labs were not equipped to run this specific test.
Individuals with low-level crimes committed before the age of 21 will be able to have their convictions expunged and all Massachusetts residents will be able to have their records expunged for crimes no longer considered illegal in the Commonwealth. This will be especially helpful for individuals with marijuana-related convictions in Massachusetts.
Several vulnerable groups also received special attention in the new bill. For children, the age of criminal responsibility will be increased from 7 to 12 and solitary confinement will no longer be allowed for children of any age, a ban that also extends to pregnant women. The new bill will require district attorneys to create pre-arraignment diversion programs for military veterans and Massachusetts residents with mental health or substance abuse issues. A provision will also allow for the compassionate release of terminally ill patients.
The comprehensive criminal justice reform bill also targets bail reform in the state. Going forward, a person accused of a crime in the state will not be imprisoned because of his or her inability to pay court fees or fines. The threshold for felony larceny will increase from a pithy $250 to $12,000. Those operating under the influence in Massachusetts will face new penalties upon receiving their sixth, seventh, eighth, or ninth OUI conviction.
In addition to the reforms in sentencing and criminal law, the bill also includes portions meant to improve prison conditions and reduce recidivism. State Sen. Will Brownsberger, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee told Boston Magazine, “The agreement we have reached today is about lifting people up instead of locking people up. It is about cutting the chains that hold people down when they are trying to get back on their feet.
The far-reaching bill has received praise from lawmakers and criminal justice reform advocates. Gov. Baker said he is “pleased” that the lawmakers came to an agreement.