Massachusetts legislators back revamp of state’s criminal justice laws

The bill seeks reform in everything from the state's bail system to the use of solitary confinement in prisons.

BOSTON (AP) — The most extensive overhaul of Massachusetts’ criminal procedures in several decades cruised to final passage in the Legislature on Wednesday, proposing changes in nearly every aspect of a justice system criticized by many for focusing too much on punishment and too little on rehabilitation.

The compromise bill drafted by a House-Senate conference committee after months of negotiations was praised by lawmakers from both parties before being approved by votes of 37-0 in the Senate and 148-5 in the House.

The 121-page bill seeks reform in everything from the state’s bail system to the use of solitary confinement in prisons. It calls for greater use of programs that divert some youthful offenders and people struggling with mental health issues or drug addiction away from involvement with the courts. And for the first time in Massachusetts, it would allow certain prior offenses to be expunged from a person’s record including those that are no longer crimes, such as possession of small amounts of marijuana.


“We are changing lives with this bill,” said Democratic Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez of Boston.

Growing up in the city in the 1980s, Sanchez recalled being stopped and frisked by police and seeing friends thrown up against cruisers and arrested “because they had a joint in their pockets.”

Sanchez was among several lawmakers who noted that passage of the bill coincided with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who had fought for equal treatment of blacks and other minorities in the justice system.

“This bill is not everything,” said Democratic Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston, noting that the compromise did not encompass all of the changes originally sought by activists and some Democratic lawmakers.

“But this bill represents incredible, large and I will say joyful (progress) toward the promised land that Dr. King so faithfully predicted in the night before his shooting,” she said.

The legislation repeals several mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses, but also adds new mandatory sentences for trafficking in fentanyl and carfentanil, synthetic opioids blamed for escalating the deadly opioid abuse crisis.

“Part of the balance represented in this bill is treating those who would threaten public safety in a very serious way,” said Senate Republican Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, who participated in negotiations that led to the compromise.


Tarr also pointed to provisions that would increase prison time for people caught driving drunk five or more times, and stiffen penalties for corporations convicted of manslaughter.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker planned to “carefully review” the bill, according to a spokesman. He has 10 days to act on it.

The measure changes the threshold for which theft is considered a larceny from the current $250 to $1,200. And while a Senate proposal to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 18 to 19 was dropped from the compromise, the minimum age for criminal responsibility would be raised from 7 to 12. It is estimated that several dozen children under the age of 12 are arrested each year in Massachusetts, though fewer cases actually reach the court system.

Legislative leaders have not said how much the entire bill might cost to implement, but predicted it would ultimately save money for the state by reducing the prison population, which already has been declining in recent years.

Martin Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said the legislation reforms aspects of criminal justice that had not been touched by lawmakers in decades.

“They are getting smarter on crime rather than just being tough on crime,” said Healy.