Justice bill passes in Senate

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

“This is a significant step in the right direction,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Racial Justice Program. “There’s a lot more that could be done.”

Hall noted that selling heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl still would trigger mandatory minimum sentences.

Many prosecutors and police officials in Massachusetts are in favor of mandatory minimum sentences. Prosecutors often use lengthy mandatory sentences for offenses such as trafficking drugs in a school zone as a bargaining tool. Facing a mandatory five-year sentence, defendants will often plead guilty to a lesser charge rather than contest charges with a trial.

Nine of the state’s 11 district attorneys penned a letter panning the Senate bill.

“This undermines the cause and pursuit of fair and equal justice for all, largely ignores the interests of victims of crime, and puts at risk the undeniable strides and unparalleled success of Massachusetts’ approach to public safety and criminal justice for at least the last 25 years,” the district attorneys wrote.

Hall says locking up nonviolent drug offenders is not effective at combatting the state’s drug problem.

“There’s no research that supports the notion that mandatory minimums prevent overdoses or reduce drug use,” he said. “They’re trying the same thing over and not getting different results.”

Activists say they expect that the district attorneys will have more sway over members of the House, a more conservative body than the Senate. Hall said the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences might be a sticking point for the House.

Tompkins echoed what appears to be a prevailing sentiment among criminal justice reform advocates: that the bill is only the first step in a longer push for reform.

“The longest journey begins with a single step,” he said. “This is a first step.”