Editorial: Criminal justice reform isn’t soft on crime, it’s realistic

Published: 4/19/2018 9:00:07 AM

It took months of wrangling — between liberals and conservatives, between House and Senate, between governor and Legislature — but Massachusetts has finally overhauled its criminal justice laws.

While there were many parts to the reform bill, major changes seemed aimed at reversing some of the 1980s tough-on-crime measures that have come to be seen as disproportionately hurting the poor, minorities and those swept into the criminal justice system at an early age, or for relatively minor offenses, only to find it hard to get out or stay away once enmeshed.

Major changes included repealing mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders; restricting the use of solitary confinement in jails; allowing for the expungement of juvenile records; raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 12; and decriminalizing a first offense misdemeanor if the punishment is a fine or imprisonment for not more than six months. The bill also raises the bar for a larceny felony from $250 to $1,200, and relaxes certain bail and fees requirements for the poor.

At the same time, the bill strengthened laws against fentanyl trafficking — one of the deadliest elements in the current opioid epidemic.

Opponents said that the bill goes too far and weakens the state’s criminal justice laws in many ways.

The governor has qualms about elements of the bill and says it will require the Legislature to raise about $15 million to pay for parts involving jails. But he signed it, saying the good outweighed the bad.

The law’s supporters — including the entire Franklin County and North Quabbin legislative delegation — agreed the bill is a balanced one that, in the words of state Sen. Will Brownsberger, D-Belmont, “is about lifting people up, instead of locking people up.”

If these changes do that, then we think it has been worth the tradeoffs.

On the opioid front, Democratic Rep. Claire Cronin, the top House negotiator, said lawmakers sought to lessen penalties for low-level drug offenses and offer greater access to treatment for those addicted, while at the same time increasing penalties for “those who seek to profit from the misery of others.”

“Let the message be clear, fentanyl and carfentanil are not welcome in Massachusetts,” said Cronin.

The bill, which puts new limits on the use of restraints and isolation in juvenile detention facilities, would also, for the first time in Massachusetts, allow certain criminal records for juveniles and young adults to be expunged, giving young offenders a better chance to get back on track to a productive life after arrest or conviction.

The reform’s increase of the state’s felony larceny threshold marks the first time that’s happened in about a century. Previously, theft of property valued above $250 was considered a felony, but the threshold increase to $1,200 under the reform should keep a felony off the records of many people convicted of what, in today’s dollars, is a relatively minor theft.

The reform law’s sliding scale system for bail and certain court fees — which have been shown to ensnare the poor more than their well-heeled counterparts because when they can’t afford the fees or bail, they wind up back in court or jail for failure to pay, only magnifying their problems with the “system” — is a step in the right direction as well.

These, and similar changes, correct a criminal justice system that can feel stacked against the disadvantaged and tend to keep them coming back.

If this is what being soft on crime looks like, we, like all but ultimately five state legislators, are willing to take that chance.


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