Massachusetts Legislature Passes Sweeping Criminal Justice Reforms

This week, the State Legislature passed the most-sweeping reforms of the Massachusetts criminal-justice system in decades.  The bill (technically, two bills) is now before the Governor, who has ten days to decide whether to sign the legislation into law, veto it, or send it back to the Legislature with recommended changes.

The BBA, which has advocated for changes in several key areas, will be sending a letter to the Governor, urging him to sign the bill into law—in particular, those reform measures that were recommended by our own criminal-justice working group in their No Time to Wait report last October.

Here are some of the main provisions in the bill that the BBA had proposed:

  1. Increase opportunities for pre-trial diversion for more defendants
  • Expands the eligibility criteria for pre-trial diversion to include a wider population of offenders.
  • Amends the CORI laws to permit the removal of offender’s successful completion of pretrial diversion from publicly accessible CORI reports.

2. Adopt significant reforms to the Massachusetts cash bail system

  • Requires that, generally, cash bail should not be ordered unless a defendant can in fact afford to pay the bail set.
  • Follows the emerging national model of pre-trial services reform by:
    • developing programs to minimize unnecessary pretrial detention,
    • reminding defendants of upcoming court dates using modern messaging approaches, and
    • requiring annual reports with aggregated data.
  1. Repeal mandatory minimum sentences, particularly for drug crimes
  • Repeals mandatory minimums for seven non-violent offenses.
  • Limits applicability of the school-zone law, and its mandatory minimum, to cases involving guns/violence/threats, kingpins, or minors.
  1. Ensure that ordering payment of multiple fines and fees does not effectively criminalize poverty
  • Makes more fees waivable and standardizes waiver language across fees.
  • Eliminates:
    • indigent counsel fee for defendants under 18 years of age,
    • parole fees for the first year, and probation fees for the first six months, after release from incarceration, and
    • counsel fees for cases of non-payment.
  • Bars incarceration solely for non-payment of money, or if such a person is not represented by counsel for the commitment proceeding and allows for alternatives to incarceration solely for non-payment of a fine.
  • Increases the monetary credit with which people can “work off” their criminal justice debt when confined for non-payment from $30 to $90 per day
  1. Reassess CORI laws
  • Reduce the time period for defendants to wait to seal records of conviction, from 10 years to 7 years for felonies, and from 5 years to 3 years for misdemeanors.
  • Allows expungement of non-serious cases up to age 21.
  • Require Courts and the Probation Department to seal automatically cases dismissed prior to arraignment or pursuant to a statutory diversion program.

In addition, the bill contains language creating a stream-lined process for post-conviction relief for individuals that were arrested and convicted of certain offenses while under the control of a trafficker, which the BBA separately endorsed.

We ask you to join the BBA in urging the Governor to sign the bill and preserve these much-needed evidence-based reforms, to make our justice system fairer and more effective.

Meanwhile, even if the bill is enacted, our work in this field is not finished: You will note that, in spite of the BBA’s long-time opposition to mandatory minimums in general—and our report’s proposal to at least start by eliminating all such sentences for drug offenses—the bill preserves those misguided provisions for higher-level crimes.  We will continue to support efforts to go further toward full repeal in future legislative sessions.

—Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association