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Pending legislation evaluates drug incarceration, statutory rape laws

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts reviews and reforms criminal justice laws. PHOTO BY JENNA MANTO/ DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

The Massachusetts legislature is currently drafting comprehensive criminal justice reform legislation, which has been long-awaited by reform advocates.

The purpose of wide-ranging criminal justice reform in Massachusetts is to reduce the prison population and thereby decrease state spending by designating incarceration as a last resort punishment, University of Massachusetts Boston professor of sociology Kevin Wozniak said.

“On top of the costly nature of incarceration, a good amount of evidence suggests that it isn’t even more effective at preventing recidivism than … probation or treatment,” Wozniak said.

The Senate has yet to debate its bill addressing a wide range of issues including sentencing, diversion, bail process, criminal record and juvenile court reform, Benjamin Forman, the research director at the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, said. The House has not yet released an equivalent of the Senate bill.

A major aspect of the Senate bill repeals mandatory minimum sentences for various drug offenses, Forman said.  

The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts issued a joint statement with Prisoners’ Legal Services and the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services Thursday, stating the bill does not go far enough in regards to this measure.  

“While this bill would eliminate mandatory minimums for many drug offenses, it perpetuates a myth that the ‘war on drugs’ is effective policy by maintaining minimums for opioid trafficking and adding new mandatory sentences,” according to the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Along with drug reform, the Senate bill includes a controversial provision, dubbed the “Romeo and Juliet” provision, which would scrap current legislation regarding statutory rape, or criminalizing consensual sex involving minors under the age of 16. Alternatively, the bill proposes legalizing consensual sex between young people close in age. This includes anyone within four years of age with a minor that is 15 years old, three years of age if the minor is under 15 and two years if the minor is under 12.

Sana Fadel, the deputy director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, wrote in an email this legislation is necessary because it appropriately recognizes the reality of sexual relationships between young people.

“The legislation is an effort to come into line with a majority of states, to recognize that young people have sexual contact with one another and criminalizing that contact is not the best way to respond to it,” Fadel wrote. “That is an issue for families, faith communities, [and] public health officials, but we don’t think it’s an issue for police and [district attorneys].”

Andrew Beckwith, the president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said the group opposes the provision because it would cause harm to children.

“The long-term implications would be normalizing sex between teens and even preteens,” Beckwith said. “The best psychological and physiological health experts recognize that under a certain age … children do not necessarily possess the mental and emotional capacities to make the type of life-altering decisions they’re involved in engaging in sexual relationships.”

Several advocacy groups have felt encouraged by the Massachusetts legislature’s efforts to implement criminal justice reform but have various reservations about other aspects of the Senate bill.

Forman said, on behalf of the MassINC Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, there are not enough provisions addressing data transparency.

“We’d like to see more data transparency and accountability so we have a better sense of what the system’s doing and whether or not it’s working,” Forman said. “We actually need to know what’s happened to make sure that we don’t make policy based on sensational crimes.”

The ACLU of Massachusetts wrote in the statement they have concerns about certain provisions in the bill because the bill doesn’t retain the same safeguards set up for incarcerated people with mental illness. The proposed bill also doesn’t set a limit for how long someone can be left alone in solitary confinement.

Allison Jordan, a board member of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, wrote in a statement while the proposed legislation moves in the right direction, it must go further.

“For instance, the proposed bill seeks to revise but not abolish the cash bail system,” Jordan wrote. “It codifies procedural rules regarding imposition of solitary confinement but does not restrict the length of time in which one can be held in solitary.”

Forman said the Senate expects to debate and pass this bill is in the coming weeks, and the House will soon release its own comprehensive criminal justice reform bill they plan to have debated by Nov. 15. The two bills will then go to a conference committee, Forman said, which hopes to reach a compromise by the end of the year.

Forman said the implementation of comprehensive criminal justice reform will potentially have major implications for Boston.

“We know that the high rates of incarceration have increased primarily in city neighborhoods,” Forman said. “We know that criminal records of incarceration have made it difficult for many young men in Boston to get good jobs and support families. I think if we fully recognize those consequences and try to do things a different way, it can lead to … more economic mobility and less inequality in the city and region overall.”

Several Boston residents said they support various features of the Senate reform bill.

Ryan Brennan, 27, of South Boston, said repealing mandatory minimums and raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility are especially important reforms.

“I love the fact that we’re trying for the first time really to change the mandatory minimum sentences here in Massachusetts,” Brennan said. “It’s a great idea to have kids that are in high school all underneath the same umbrella versus having someone who’s doing the exact same thing as their friends and getting into a little bit more trouble because they have a couple extra months on their age.”

Shineka Prince, 27, of East Boston, said it is sensible to limit the amount of time non-violent offenders spend in jail.

“There should be other ways of teaching somebody to not do the wrong thing,” Prince said. “It’s better for them to not go to jail for a long time for something that’s harmless.”

Maria Rigaud, 60, of Fenway, said there should be alternative punishments for juveniles.

“Young people should be put on rehabilitation instead of locked in jail … because just locking them in jail doesn’t help the community,” Rigaud said.

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