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Lawmakers named to negotiate criminal justice bill



State House News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2017

The task of reconciling two major criminal justice bills is ready to get underway after lawmakers on Thursday appointed a conference committee led by Rep. Claire Cronin and Sen. William Brownsberger, the co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee.

The conference committee is charged with forging a compromise that, if adopted, would represent one of the biggest overhauls of criminal justice laws in modern history. House Majority Leader Ron Mariano of Quincy and Senate Assistant Majority Leader Cynthia Creem of Newton will join Cronin and Brownsberger in the Democratic majority on the panel. Rep. Sheila Harrington of Groton and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester are the Republican appointees.

It will be Cronin’s first conference committee, according to an aide. Mariano, a veteran lawmaker, also co-chaired this year’s marijuana legalization bill conference committee, where he worked in tandem with Rep. Mark Cusack of Braintree, who joined the House in 2011.

A top agenda item for civil liberties activists for years, changes to criminal sentencing and prison practices hit the docket of the House and Senate this fall. Along with proposals for reducing health care costs, the criminal justice bill is one of the top undertakings of a legislative session that kicked off in January with hefty pay raises for committee chairs and party leaders.

Gov. Charlie Baker could be presented with a major reform bill as he ramps up his campaign for re-election. The omnibus bills are not based on any similar bill filed by the governor, who joined legislative leaders earlier this session in backing a narrow bill allowing certain people serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes to earn good time towards an early release from incarceration. The House passed that bill, which is pending in the Senate.

The Senate on Oct. 27 voted 27-10 on its omnibus bill raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to encompass 18-year-olds, repealing mandatory minimum sentences for cocaine-trafficking and other crimes, while also specifically making narcotics dealers subject to second-degree murder charges if their products kill a user.

On Nov. 14 the House voted 144-9 to pass legislation creating new opportunities for expungement of criminal records, repealing some mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealing while leaving existing penalties in place for cocaine trafficking, and enhancing penalties for repeat drunk drivers.

Both bills generally seek to grant judges greater leeway in sentencing street-level drug dealers while taking a stricter approach towards certain offenses – such as dealing large quantities of fentanyl.

“These bills are all about balance,” House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez said when the House began debating its bill. “How do we make sure that we ensure the public safety of the commonwealth and also help those in the criminal justice system who want to turn their life around? We do this through a number of practical and extremely progressive policies.”

The Senate bill generally goes farther than the House in reining in practices that advocates say have led to widespread incarceration, disproportionately locking up black and Latino individuals.

“We need to fight like hell for this bill,” Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain senator, said at a State House rally for the Senate bill in October, which was held before the bill’s passage. “To protect it, to advance it, and we should not accept anything less.”

Tarr, who prefers the House version, forecast an intense process that is more likely than not to result in a compromise bill to send to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk.