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Governor Baker signs criminal justice reforms into law

Changes aimed at reducing jail time and recidivism

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Governor Baker signs criminal justice reforms into law
Banner Photo Gov. Charlie Baker signs into law criminal justice reforms that include the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent drug offenses and reforms to the state’s CORI laws.

Surrounded by Democratic and Republican lawmakers, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a bill that rolls back mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent crimes, reforms the state’s criminal records laws making it easier for ex-offenders to seal their records and reduces fines and fees assessed on ex-prisoners.

“This was a true group effort to enhance public safety and provide opportunities to people who have paid their debt to society and help them find their way back into positive participation in our communities,” he said of the bill.

Legislators and criminal justice reform activists gather at the Grand Staircase at the State House to mark the signing of a criminal justice reform bill into law.

Banner Photo
Legislators and criminal justice reform activists gather at the Grand Staircase at the State House to mark the signing of a criminal justice reform bill into law.

The bill signing last Friday marked a brief moment of unity between legislators, who voted for it 185-5, and Baker, who immediately after the signing expressed reservations about several of its provisions. For their part, the legislators who spearheaded the bill spoke about the need to push forward with more progressive changes to the criminal justice system.

Worcester state Rep. Mary Keefe, who supported the Justice Reinvestment Act, a provision that would have targeted funding toward job training and other programs for ex-offenders, said she would continue to push for the measure as the state is expected to realize savings from lower incarceration rates.

“We’re going to continue to be a loud voice for this,” she said.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who led the push for the legislation in the Senate, said the funds saved should lead to a “virtuous cycle” that could fund programs that keep ex-offenders from returning to crime.

“I’m already hearing a lot of conversations in the Legislature about how do we fund re-entry and prevention services,” she said. “The fact that the conversation is already happening is encouraging.”

Reforms

In addition to the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, the legislation signed into law last Friday contained provisions including a reduction in the number of years before ex-prisoners can seal their criminal records from 10 years for felonies and five for misdemeanors to seven and three years. The legislation also eliminates parole fees for the first year prisoners are released from jail and for the first six months of probation and removes cash bail in cases where it is not deemed necessary to prevent people who haven’t been convicted of a crime from being imprisoned because they cannot afford to pay.

The legislation also increases the threshold for felony theft from $250 — a level set decades ago — to $1,200. The legislation sets limits on solitary confinement and allows prisoners who are terminally ill or severely disabled to be released from incarceration.

Chairwoman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, Claire Cronin, met with dozens of legislators to work out compromises that made the bill palatable to the majority of legislators and the Baker administration. Not all the measures in the legislation are aimed at keeping offenders out of prison. It includes new mandatory minimum sentences for people trafficking fentanyl and other opiates — a law that could affect addicts who deal small amounts to support their habit. It also includes a mandatory sentence for people convicted of assault and battery on a police officer.

Moving forward

Members of the coalition of criminal justice reform advocates were barred from entering the room during the signing of the bill into law, and instead congregated in the halls outside. Activist Calvin Feliciano said the group will continue to push for more reforms, noting that provision for the expansion of probation and parole in the law will make it more difficult for ex-offenders to re-enter society.

“Probation and parole don’t help you get jobs,” he said. “Often, they make you lose your job by calling your employer or showing up at your job.”

The provisions will expand the criminal justice system by forcing courts to hire more probation and parole officers, he added.

Feliciano said activists will work to eliminate all mandatory minimum sentences, raise the age of criminal liability from 18 to 19 and push for the passage of the Justice Reinvestment Act.

cori reform, criminal justice reform, drug diversion, justice reinvestment act, mandatory minimums