Conference committee gets to work on landmark criminal justice bill
The conference committee is charged with forging a compromise that, if adopted, would represent one of the biggest overhauls of criminal justice laws in modern history.
A top agenda item for civil liberties activists for years, changes to criminal sentencing and prison practices hit the docket of the House and Senate this fall. Along with proposals for reducing health care costs, the criminal justice bill is one of the top undertakings of a legislative session that kicked off in January with hefty pay raises for committee chairpersons and party leaders.
Gov. Charlie Baker could be presented with a major reform bill as he ramps up his campaign for re-election. The omnibus bills are not based on any similar bill filed by the governor, who joined legislative leaders earlier this session in backing a narrow bill allowing certain people serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes to earn good time towards an early release from incarceration. The House passed that bill, which is pending in the Senate.
The Senate on Oct. 27 voted 27-10 on its omnibus bill raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to encompass 18-year-olds, repealing mandatory minimum sentences for cocaine-trafficking and other crimes, while also specifically making narcotics dealers subject to second-degree murder charges if their products kill a user.
On Nov. 14, the House voted 144-9 to pass legislation creating new opportunities for expungement of criminal records, repealing some mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealing while leaving existing penalties in place for cocaine trafficking, and enhancing penalties for repeat drunk drivers.
Both bills generally seek to grant judges greater leeway in sentencing street-level drug dealers while taking a stricter approach toward certain offenses — such as dealing large quantities of fentanyl.
"These bills are all about balance," House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez said when the House began debating its bill. "How do we make sure that we ensure the public safety of the commonwealth and also help those in the criminal justice system who want to turn their life around? We do this through a number of practical and extremely progressive policies."
The Senate bill generally goes farther than the House in reining in practices that advocates say have led to widespread incarceration, disproportionately locking up black and Latino individuals.
"We need to fight like hell for this bill," said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Jamaica Plain senator, at a Statehouse rally for the Senate bill in October, which was held before the bill's passage. "To protect it, to advance it, and we should not accept anything less."
House Majority Leader Ron Mariano, of Quincy, and Senate Assistant Majority Leader Cynthia Creem, of Newton, will join Cronin and Brownsberger in the Democratic majority on the panel. Rep. Sheila Harrington, of Groton, and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, of Gloucester, are the Republican appointees.
It will be Cronin's first conference committee, according to an aide. Mariano, a veteran lawmaker, also co-chaired this year's marijuana legalization bill conference committee, where he worked in tandem with Rep. Mark Cusack of Braintree, who joined the House in 2011.
Tarr, who prefers the House version, forecast an intense process that is more likely than not to result in a compromise bill to send to Baker's desk.
"I think there is a desire to move on these issues, and I think there's enough that we can reach a reasonable agreement. I think it will likely take a fair amount of time and given the complexity of the issues it will be an intense process, but I do think there is a path to agreement. Whether we reach that agreement, I would give it better than even odds but nothing's for certain," Tarr told the News Service.
Beyond the gravity of the issues presented — sex between adolescents, solitary confinement in the prison system, and the penalty for corporate manslaughter to name a few — there will be a gargantuan amount of paperwork involved as the conferees try to merge the two bills.
The House bill gained the support of the Republican leader, North Reading Rep. Brad Jones, and roughly 75 percent of the Republican caucus. No House Democrats voted against it. The Senate's six Republicans voted against the Senate criminal justice bill and they were joined in opposition by four Democrats — Lowell Sen. Eileen Donoghue, Spencer Sen. Anne Gobi, Newburyport Sen. Kathleen O'Connor Ives and West Roxbury Sen. Michael Rush.
"I think some of the items that were in the Senate bill that shouldn't have been included were not included in the House bill," said Tarr. He said there is lots of "overlap" between the two bills.
The work of conference committees is traditionally shielded from public view — with meetings taking place behind closed doors and in exchanges that are exempt from the public records law. In the 2011-12 legislative session, the last time lawmakers undertook a major overhaul of criminal sentencing laws, the conference committee offered a peek at its deliberations, electing to hold meetings open to the public.
When former Gov. Deval Patrick signed the sentencing bill five years ago, he said that House Speaker Robert DeLeo and former Senate President Therese Murray "have pledged to return to the subject of mandatory minimum sentencing early in the next session. I take them at their word."
Formal sessions when roll call votes can be taken are scheduled to end July 31, 2018, under the rules and conference committees on major bills typically continue negotiations until right before that deadline, which next year falls in the months leading up to the statewide election.
Baker on Halloween described the Senate bill as "big and complicated." He said "there are a bunch of things in there that cause us very significant concern. In the middle of this terrible opioid and heroin epidemic the legislation, in a number of instances, dramatically reduces the penalties for drug dealers in heroin, fentanyl, and cocaine."
He added, "And there are a number of other elements in it that just seem to not make a heck of a lot of sense."
On Nov. 6, as the House unveiled its broader justice reform bill, Baker's communications director Lizzy Guton said in a statement: "The Baker-Polito Administration worked with legislative and judicial leaders to develop bipartisan criminal justice legislation and has expanded meaningful reentry and skills programming for inmates near release. The administration will carefully review any legislation reaching the governor's desk, is opposed to letting the convicted drug dealers out of prison early and maintains that in the midst of deadly opioid epidemic, the criminal justice debate must include consideration of harsher penalties for heroin and fentanyl dealers that knowingly take someone's life."
Negotiations will probably begin before the end of the year, Tarr said.
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