Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform: What’s in the Bill?

The Massachusetts Senate passed a major criminal justice reform bill on October 27, 2017 and the legislation is now before our House of Representatives. Broadly speaking, the Senate bill represents a victory for the “smart on crime” approach that has swept state legislatures in recent years, even in the most conservative states. The fact is that you cannot arrest or prosecute your way out of social problems. The “tough on crime” approach has failed, proving instead to be disproportionate, destroying poor communities and communities of color, and seriously burdening taxpayers with the high fiscal and social cost of unnecessary incarceration.

As of this writing we do not know what will be in the House version. You may have heard about aspects of the Senate’s version, all of which make sense:

  • Raising the jurisdiction of juvenile courts to 18 years of age, based on hard science regarding juvenile brain development.
  • Eliminates most mandatory minimum sentences (we wish it eliminated all of them).
  • Allows for expungement of offenses which are no longer criminal, like possession of marijuana
  • Raising the threshold for felony larceny from $250 to $1500, an overcharged crime, leaving prosecutors the option to charge misdemeanor larceny or shoplifting.
  • Limits on the use of segregation and solitary confinement.

But you may not have heard about some amendments adopted by the Senate. Here are some that we strongly support;

  • Amendment 1 (Sen. Cyr) provides equal protections for LGBTQ prisoners in commissary, housing, and access to treatment for gender identity issues. Being in prison is hard enough, LGBTQ prisoners deserve not to be singled out for worse treatment. The problem is real. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that inmates identified as gay are subject to quadruple the rate of violence of other inmates.
  • Amendment 2 (Sen. Jehlen) expands wrongful conviction compensation to $2 million from $500,000 and allows for immediate access to social services for exonerees, eliminating the need for them to wait for an exoneration suit to be completed. Can you imagine spending decades in prison as an innocent person and only being entitled to $500,000 in compensation?
  • Amendment 10 (Sen. Keenan) requires the adoption of clinical standards for mental health treatment for prisoners. 
  • Amendment 105 (Sen. Jehlen, again) requires the establishment of a forensic science commission to evaluate the science being presented to juries and judges. With the PCAST and NAS commissions on forensic science being disbanded by the Trump administration, it is vital that states step up to ensure that injustices are not perpetrated on our citizens by the use of unreliable (but very convincing-sounding) science and that justice is promoted by the use of reliable, peer-reviewed science.