Posted by 29 March 2018
How Massachusetts prosecutes crime and punishes criminals may undergo a massive overhaul under legislation being considered in the commonwealth. Legislators recently unveiled a bill that would make numerous changes to the criminal code. If enacted, this would be the most comprehensive criminal justice reform for the state in decades.
Among other things, this legislation would:
- Decriminalize some minor offenses, such as being in the presence of heroin, and allow prosecutors more discretion in using diversion instead of punishment for other minor offenses
- Mandate that judges must consider the financial capacity of defendants when setting bail
- Eliminate a variety of mandatory minimum sentences related to non-opioid drug offenses
- Increase the mandatory minimum sentences for opioid trafficking
- Increase penalties for intimidating witnesses
- Reduce the use of solitary confinement in prisons
- Allow the release of prisoners who are incapacitated and do not pose a public safety risk
- Reduce fees imposed on defendants
- Increase privacy protections for criminal records
- Raise age of juvenile criminal jurisdiction from 7 years of age to 12 years of age
- House 18-24 year-olds separately in prison from other inmates
- Prevent parents and children from testifying against each other for most crimes
- Provide stronger oversight of crime labs
The bill’s supporters say that this is a long-overdue reform that would make the criminal justice system fairer and reduce its impact on people in poverty and minorities. However, some of the provisions in the legislation are strongly opposed by prosecutors. One of the provisions that is most troubling to this group is the prohibition on parents testifying against their minor children. Supporters of that idea say it is a way to prevent families from being torn apart, but prosecutors contend that it would prevent testimony necessary for convictions. Another provision disliked by prosecutors is ending juvenile court jurisdiction for children ages 7 to 11, effectively meaning that there would be no criminal penalties for crimes committed by children in this age group.
The legislation is a compromise version of House and Senate bills. It must be passed by an up-or-down vote in both chambers with no amendments allowed. With Democrats controlling both chambers, it is expected to pass. Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, has not indicated whether he would sign it or not.
Do you think support reforming laws to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and reduce fees on defendants? Do you think that lightening criminal laws will lead to more crime?