BOSTON (AP) — Massachusetts lawmakers are in the throes of a major debate about potential changes to the state’s criminal justice system.
Democratic leaders in the Senate have already floated a wide-ranging bill.
Besides eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses while increasing penalties for others, the proposal calls for a reduction in court fees charged to low-income defendants, changes in solitary confinement procedures in state prisons and an overhaul of the state’s bail system.
Supporters of the proposal including Judiciary Committee co-chair Sen. William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat, who said the goal of the legislation is to offer alternatives to incarceration for some while helping former convicts avoid returning to prison for new crimes.
Brownsberger helped lead a rally Thursday at the Statehouse along with Senate President Stan Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, and others in favor of pushing ahead with the plan.
“Today in Massachusetts we are locking up four to five times as many people as we were locking up 40 years ago,” Brownsberger said at the rally. “However we got here, there’s no question that in communities of poverty, incarceration itself has become a problem. We have to lift people up instead of locking them up.”
While a push for change is gaining momentum in the Senate, lawmakers in the House are still hashing out ideas.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo said this week that the House version of the bill is a work in progress, but he’s hoping to get it to the floor for a vote sometime in the next several weeks.
“Right now I don’t want to get into particulars except to say that I’m expecting we’re going to do our best to take that up at least for debate and get it into conference committee before we break for the year,” the Winthrop Democrat told reporters Wednesday.
DeLeo didn’t have details about what would be in the bill or if it would include a loosening of some minimum mandatory sentences.
“In terms of any specifics I don’t want to get into that yet because things have not been put into stone at this point,” DeLeo said.
DeLeo has called in at least one high-profile adviser — former Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland — to help the House hammer out its bill.
DeLeo said Ireland brings unique insight to the criminal justice reform debate from his 37 years of the judiciary, including 13 spent as an associate justice of the juvenile court.
Republican Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation in February designed to help reduce the number of former inmates who wind up back behind bars.
Baker’s bill would create a system of earned “good time credits” for inmates who finish recidivism-reduction programs. The credits would be used to reduce the time inmates spend incarcerated and help strengthen services intended to keep them from landing back in jail or prison.
The Republican governor said at the time that while Massachusetts has a relatively low incarceration rate, two-thirds of those released from houses of correction and half of those released from prison are back in the system within three years.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan said she is particularly pleased with a portion of the Senate bill that would expand the use of “restorative justice” that seek to disrupt “the school-to-prison pipeline” by diverting young people into alternative justice programs.
Ryan said she has seen restorative justice programs work successfully.
“It helps to change minds on both sides. It changes attitudes. And most importantly for every one of us and for public safety and individuals it leads to changes of outcome,” Ryan said.