House unveils its version of criminal justice shakeup

BOSTON (AP) — Sweeping changes in Massachusetts’ criminal justice laws proposed Monday by House leaders would toughen penalties for habitual drunken drivers and those who traffic in deadly synthetic opioids, but also eliminate some mandatory minimum sentences and allow certain past crimes, including marijuana possession, to be expunged from a person’s record.

The bill calls for a wide range of reforms from pre-trial diversion programs and bail guidelines to new standards for solitary confinement in state prisons, said Democratic House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

The full House will debate the legislation next week, setting the stage for negotiations with the Senate, which last month approved its own version of a criminal justice overhaul. DeLeo said he hopes a compromise bill will be sent to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker early in 2018.

While the House and Senate concur on many elements, they diverge in several key areas. The House did not back a Senate provision to raise the age for juvenile court jurisdiction from 18 to 19, nor would the House alter statutory rape laws to decriminalize consensual sex between minors close in age.

Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the legislation seeks a balance between public safety and fairness.

“How do we make sure that we deal with a criminal justice system that hasn’t been just?” the Boston Democrat asked rhetorically during a briefing with reporters.

Sanchez said his Boston district continues to be hit hard by drugs and gun violence, noting the recent shooting death of a 16-year-old boy in one of the city’s public housing communities. But too many people who get into trouble at a young age also face insurmountable obstacles when trying to turn their lives around, he added.

“What we have attempted to do is address the criminal justice every step of the way, from a person’s first contact with the criminal justice system through the courts and right up until the end, after a person has been incarcerated and re-enters society” said House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Claire Cronin, an Easton Democrat.

The House bill would, for the first time ever, allow people to petition the courts to expunge from their criminal records certain crimes committed before age 21. A person of any age could seek to expunge crimes that no longer are illegal in Massachusetts, such as possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The bill would reclassify fentanyl and carfentanil as Class A drugs, equivalent to heroin, creating what DeLeo said would be the nation’s toughest penalties for the synthetic opioids that are blamed for escalating the state’s devastating overdose crisis.

The House also proposes beefed-up sentences for people who are repeatedly caught drinking and driving, including up to 10 years in prison for anyone with nine or more drunken-driving offenses.

The House appeared to respond to concerns raised by a majority of the state’s district attorneys about the scope of the Senate bill.

Unlike the Senate, the House bill would not retroactively eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, which prosecutors argued could result in early release for some convicted drug traffickers.

The prosecutors also opposed raising to 19 the age at which a person is consider an adult under the law as well as a Senate provision increasing from $250 to $1,500 the threshold at which larceny is considered a felony. The House bill would set that threshold at $750.

Baker’s communications director Lizzy Guyton said the administration will carefully review any legislation that reaches the governor’s desk, but “is opposed to letting the convicted drug dealers out of prison early and maintains that in the midst of deadly opioid epidemic, the criminal justice debate must include consideration of harsher penalties for heroin and fentanyl dealers that knowingly take someone’s life.”

The Jobs not Jail Coalition, a group advocating for major changes in the criminal justice system, praised aspects of the House bill while noting it did not go as far as the Senate’s proposals in some areas.

“Currently there are serious problems with too many people with drug addiction going to prison instead of to treatment, great racial disparities on who goes to prison, (and) great recidivism indicating a broken system,” said Lewis Finfer, a spokesman for the coalition.

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