The Massachusetts Senate passed a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill Friday morning which has been under consideration in various forms for the past three years.
This legislation, An Act Relative to Criminal Justice Reform, aims to reduce the occurrence of crime and the number of people involved in the criminal justice system by reforming mandatory minimum sentences, juvenile justice, diversion and bail, William Brownsberger, a senator and sponsor of the act, said.
The bill, a product of compromise between Senate Democrats and Republicans, passed by a vote of 27-10, Brownsberger said. This particular legislation has been in review since earlier in October, The Daily Free Press reported.
Sen. Karen Spilka, the Senate Committee on Ways and Means chair, said in a press release from her office the reforms were long overdue, especially in relation to juvenile justice.
“In particular, the juvenile justice reforms … ensure young people are treated fairly and appropriately,” Spilka said. “All young people deserve a second chance. This bill provides them with access to the resources they need to get back on track and live successful, productive lives.”
Sen. Eileen Donoghue wrote in an email that she was unable to support the bill because although there were some portions she agreed with, the provisions went too far, potentially creating future imbalance in the criminal justice system.
“In my final analysis, I could not support a bill that included provisions like raising the ages for criminal majority and criminal prosecution, eliminating too many mandatory minimum sentences and permitting the early release of convicted drug traffickers,” Donoghue wrote.
After two weeks of review in the Senate Ways and Means Committee in October, the bill remained largely intact as it was debated and amended on Thursday into early Friday morning, Brownsberger said.
Benjamin Forman, a research director at the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, said one amendment addressed the group’s concerns about justice reinvestment.
“You can’t incarcerate people for shorter periods of time and expect public safety to improve,” Forman said. “You have to take the savings you produce, redeploy it in programs and practices that get you better outcomes. An amendment opened up the door [for this] by saying 50 percent of any savings produced by reductions in the state incarcerated population have to go to programs in affected communities.”
Another amendment tightened the “Romeo and Juliet” provision of the bill addressing statutory rape law. The amended provision now only permits minors aged 13 and older to have consensual sex with anyone within two years of age.
Andrew Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said the tightened provision still has dangerous implications because it is especially difficult to prove lack of consent in the case of non consensual sex between young people.
“You could have a situation where a 15-year-old girl is raped by a 17-year-old and under the existing law, as long as they prove the sex act occurred, that 17-year-old is convicted,” Beckwith said. “Now, the prosecutor has to put the 15-year-old on the stand and have her talk about whatever relationship they may have had … which makes it much harder to effectively prosecute rapists.”
Several criminal justice reform advocacy groups said they were satisfied overall with the final legislative package.
Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, wrote in a statement the group supports numerous reforms put forth under the new legislation.
“Last night, the Senate showed courage, compassion and moral leadership by advancing a number of important reforms, most notably, the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses that have for years unfairly punished communities of color and driven over-incarceration,” Rose wrote.
Sana Fadel, deputy director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, said the organization is pleased with aspects of the bill addressing juvenile justice, including raising the age of criminal majority to 19 and providing opportunity for youth diversion from the justice system.
“We are very happy that the Senate decided to be pretty thoughtful in understanding that it’s not one fix, that you have to look at the continuum of how young people get involved in the justice system and [look] at each point of the continuum where can they do reforms,” Fadel said.
Other advocacy groups said there was also room for improvement in the criminal justice reform legislation.
Allison Jordan, a board member of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, wrote in an email some aspects of the bill are concerning while others do not go far enough.
“The revisions to the bail statute present challenges that risk incarcerating more people and adversely affect already marginalized populations based [on] race and income,” Jordan wrote. “In some areas, the bill does not go far enough, for instance, to limit the use solitary confinement, nor does it go far enough to abolish mandatory minimum sentences.”
Several Boston residents said they support reforms to the criminal justice system in Massachusetts.
Roy de Klerk, 23, of Allston, said he believes the criminal justice system requires significant changes and would benefit from more radical reform.
“I guess my only complaint is I would want more reform,” Clerk said. “I personally think the prison system is barbaric, particularly things like solitary confinement, but really just the whole system.”
Erin Carmody, 24, of Kenmore, said it is important to consider mental health in the criminal justice system.
“Counseling is important. I think mental health is important, and I think that’s a big issue in the justice system right now,” Carmody said. “I think just locking away people is not a great option and we [should] work to include some other resources in besides just confinement.”
Leo Niemczyk, 79, of Kenmore, said he especially supports reforms to juvenile justice.
“I like the younger people, and I think the younger people should get more of a break than they get,” Niemczyk said. “Like more programs for the kids, more programs for the people and the elderly. I don’t think they do enough.”