Late last month, the Massachusetts senate passed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill. The House has now followed with its version. In order for criminal justice reform to become law, the two halves of the legislature will have to agree on a final version, pass it, and send it to Governor Baker for his signature.
What reforms are being considered? They hit on a number of topics, including adjusting sentencing for a variety of offenses, increasing the use of diversion programs, and making the system fairer for people of modest means. MassLive put together an excellent comparison between the two bills. Here are some highlights:
Both bills would eliminate at least some mandatory minimums for drug offenses, which many scholars argue have increased incarceration rates without increased public safety.
The Senate bill would decriminalize sex between teens who are close in age, even if one is under 16.
Both bills would increase the dollar value at which larceny becomes a felony. The idea is to lessen the long-term consequences for people who steal a single item such as a cellphone.
Both bills would increase penalties for corporate manslaughter. The House bill adds a penalty for soliciting someone to commit a crime and raise punishments for OUI and fifth-offense OUI.
Juvenile justice reforms
Both bills would raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility and decriminalize some low-level offenses when committed by children. The Senate bill would raise the age at which juveniles must be charged as adults from 18 to 19, allowing more young people to be adjudicated in the juvenile system.
“The longer you can keep a child out of the criminal justice system, the more likely you are to have long-term results,” said House Judiciary Chairwoman Claire Cronin, D-Easton.
Both bills would expand pre-trial diversion, which allows certain defendants to reduce or eliminate their charges or sentences by successfully completing a court-sponsored program.
Bail, fines and fees
In order to ensure that low-income defendants aren’t punished for their poverty, both bills would reform bail, fines and fees to take into account the defendant’s financial resources. Also, the House would increase the credit toward fines earned through incarceration.
The use of solitary confinement is highly controversial, although it remains common. Both bills would make changes, particularly ensuring more oversight. The Senate bill would improve conditions, whereas the House bill would limit its use among juveniles and pregnant women.
Both bills would allow terminally ill patients to seek release from prison.
Additional reforms are being considered, including changes to the process and meaning of sealed criminal records, and the collection of uniform criminal justice data.