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Justice bill passes in Senate

Yawu Miller | 11/1/2017, 10:21 a.m.

The state Senate passed a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill last week that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes, eliminate fees charged to defendants, and redirect savings from the expected reduction in the state’s prison population toward drug treatment, job training and job creation programs aimed at rehabilitating people leaving prison.

By a vote of 27 to 10, the senators voted in the bill during a late-night session that ended after 1 a.m. The bill’s passage comes after a years-long push by criminal justice reform activists to repeal mandatory minimum sentences and reduce the state’s prison population.

“Today the Senate took real action to stand with communities across the commonwealth and end the vicious cycles of incarceration and crime,” said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz in a press statement. “This bill won’t finish the work of reforming our justice system, but it is a courageous and giant step — and we shouldn’t accept anything less.”

Activists have long complained that the Massachusetts prison population has swollen with nonviolent drug offenders serving mandatory sentences. For many who are in the throes of addiction, incarceration does little to help, says Calvin Feliciano, political director for SEIU 509.

“It doesn’t solve the problem,” he told the Banner. “It criminalizes people who are petty dealers. It’s the wrong way to address the problem.”

Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins said the bill’s emphasis on treatment of drug addiction over incarceration could go a long way toward reducing the state’s costly prison population.

“Almost 70 percent of my population is incarcerated because of their habit,” he said.

Tompkins also praised the bill’s bail reform measures, noting the inefficiency of the current system.

“If someone can’t pay $100 or $250, the commonwealth picks up the tab for thousands of dollars to incarcerate that person,” he said.

Under the Senate bill, possession with intent to distribute drugs including cocaine will no longer trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. Second offenses and drug violations within 300 yards of a school also no longer trigger mandatory sentences.

The threshold for felony larceny, which was last set at $250 in the 1980s, will increase to $1,500 under the bill.

Judges would be required to assess whether defendants are a flight risk or a danger and determine how much they can reasonably pay before determining bail amounts. The bill would also eliminate fees and fines charged to indigent defendants, including those for public counsel or parole.

Included in the bill is a requirement that inmates in solitary confinement be given access to showers and books and be evaluated by mental health professionals.

The House will take up the bill next. Advocates say the Senate’s reform measures will face stiffer resistance from the more conservative state representatives, who are more tightly controlled by legislative leadership.

Differing opinions

Criminal justice reform has long been a priority of members of the Massachusetts Legislative Black and Latino Caucus and the Progressive Caucus. The Senate bill, sponsored by Progressive Caucus member William Brownsberger, goes a long way toward achieving the criminal justice reforms for which community activists have been advocating.