‘Unprecedented moment’ seen as House dives into crime bill

State House News Service
Published: 11/13/2017 2:27:56 PM

BOSTON – On the heels of a major effort in the Senate, the Massachusetts House kicks off what's expected to be two days of deliberations on criminal justice today with a pair of bills teed up for consideration.

In addition to addressing racial disparities, lawmakers this year are making a serious run at tackling the state's overall incarceration levels and curbing the state's recidivism rate, in part through supports such as treatment for addiction.

One bill – originally filed by Gov. Charlie Baker to implement recommendations of a Council of State Governments review – received initial approval last Wednesday. The bill (H 4012) would give certain offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences the opportunity to reduce their time in state prison by participating in programming.

Representatives have filed more than 200 amendments to a second, more sweeping bill (H 4011), a House Ways and Means Committee redraft of legislation (S 2200) the Senate passed 27-10 last month.

"It is certainly an unprecedented moment when you've got all branches of our state government interested in doing a major comprehensive review of the criminal justice statutes," Martin Healy, chief legal counsel and COO of the Massachusetts Bar Association, told the News Service. "There is already a pre-agreement that something needs to be done."

Healy said the challenge for lawmakers to be "tough on crime" has morphed over the years into a mission to be "smart on crime," a climate change he said is due in part to the opioid addiction crisis. For instance, the system is changing the way it views drug-addicted individuals on probation, he said.

"We're on the verge of entering a new era if you will in terms of how we approach criminal justice issues," said Healy.

The Jobs Not Jails coalition backs amendments filed by Reps. Evandro Carvalho and Mary Keefe that would repeal additional mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, beyond those already removed in the bill.

The House bill raises the level at which larceny becomes a felony instead of a misdemeanor from $250 to $750, while the Senate opted for $1,500. House Speaker Robert DeLeo said he expects the level to "be an area of debate," and several lawmakers have suggested changes. Amendments from Reps. Michael Day and David Linsky would raise the threshold to $1,500, while Minority Leader Brad Jones has proposed keeping it at $250. The Retailers Association of Massachusetts supports Jones' amendment.

While further changes are in the works for those convicted of crimes, Healy said law enforcement officials are also seeking changes to the state wiretapping laws and the treatment of drug traffickers.

Jones has filed amendments that would update the state's wiretapping statute, allowing electronic surveillance to be used in certain cases that are not connected to organized crime. Baker has filed a similar bill and the Senate shot down a similar wiretapping expansion amendment 14-22.

Healy said the Senate bill had been "loaded up like a Christmas tree" with proposed changes in criminal justice policy. "The governor and the speaker seem to be more closely aligned in their approach, which is a more measured approach in terms of tackling these issues," he said.

Harvard Law School professor Nancy Gertner, a former federal judge, plans to join clergy leaders at 1 p.m. for a rally at the Grand Staircase. Reps. Byron Rushing, Russell Holmes and Evandro Carvalho are scheduled to join ralliers from the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.


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