Criminal Justice Reform

Uncategorized / Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

Check out this article below by Christian M. Wade of the Salem News:

Lawmakers are poised to overhaul the state’s criminal laws, with a reform that backers say will improve public safety while giving people with criminal records a chance to turn their lives around.

Legislation expected to come up for votes in the House and Senate next week would lower or eliminate probation and court fees for some crimes, shorten the waiting period to seal an individual’s criminal record and — for the first time in Massachusetts — allow juvenile criminal records to be expunged.

The measure would repeal mandatory sentences for some minor drug offenses while updating the laws on trafficking in fentanyl and carfentanil — synthetic drugs that are fueling the deadly opioid crisis.

Other provisions would raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 7 to 12 and limit the use of isolation in juvenile detention facilities.

The legislation is the work of a committee that spent months behind closed doors in often contentious meetings to resolve differences between House and Senate proposals that were widely viewed as the state’s biggest criminal justice overhaul in decades.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a member of the committee, said it will “increase rehabilitation opportunities for offenders while also confronting, with strong and enforceable increased penalties, those who threaten our society by selling synthetic opiates such as fentanyl and carfentanil.”

Massachusetts is particularly unforgiving when it comes to allowing people to get beyond a prior arrest or conviction. While the state allows the sealing of juvenile records after a period of time, the wait is often long, and law enforcement and other officials can still view the information.

Carol Rose, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the changes include “meaningful reforms that will ultimately help make our criminal legal system fairer and our commonwealth safer.”

“This is an important step, but there is still tremendous work to be done to end over-incarceration and ensure the fair administration of justice,” she said.

The changes would also allow people with previous marijuana possession charges to have those records expunged, now that the drug is legal.

“Everyone deserves a second chance,” said Rep. Lenny Mirra, R-West Newbury, who supports the changes. “We’re not talking about rapists and murderers here, either. We’re talking

about people who maybe did

something stupid years ago but (it) plagues them for the rest of their lives.”

District attorneys have resisted parts of the legislation that would repeal mandatory sentences.

Easing the drug laws, they have argued, will hamstring efforts to arrest and prosecute narcotics traffickers.

The legislation does toughen some laws. It would update a 2015 law that prosecutors have said has prevents them from charging drug dealers who sell fentanyl or carfentanil-laced heroin with trafficking if the confiscated mixture contains less than 10 grams of the synthetic drugs.

The state’s laws would also be added to a federal register that automatically updates when a new illicit substance is classified. Synthetic drug makers modify their formulas and develop new mixtures to get around state and federal laws, which is also hindering prosecutions.

Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, who proposed those changes with Rep. Tim Whelan, R-Brewster, said they will help with arrests and prosecutions of dealers.

“We’re constantly playing catch-up with these criminal chemists,” said Tucker, a former Salem police chief. “They’re staying one step of the law.”

Nearly 2,000 people in Massachusetts died of suspected or confirmed opioid overdoses last year, according to the Department of Public Health. Fentanyl was present in 83 percent of those cases, compared to 30 percent three years earlier. State police have also detected carfentanil — which is far more potent than fentanyl — in tests of heroin seized during arrests.

The legislation increases the threshold for felony larceny for the first time in about a century, which criminal justice advocates say will reduce recidivism. Under current law, theft valued above $250 is considered a felony, but the threshold would rise to $1,200.

Massachusetts has the second-lowest incarceration rate in the nation, but more than half of those leaving state prisons end up back in court.

The reforms would shorten the time period for sealing a criminal record from 10 to seven years for felonies, and from five to three years for misdemeanors.

Pauline Quirion, a lawyer and director of the criminal records sealing project at Greater Boston Legal Services, said reducing the time it takes to seal a criminal record, lowering probation fees and making it easier to expunge former convictions will help tens of thousands of people.

She said the changes will allow ex-convicts and people with previous offenses to get their lives back on track.

“If you have a mark on your record, you can’t get a job or housing,” Quirion said. “So you’re not going to be able to move forward.”

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