Governor Charlie Baker signed a new bill on criminal justice into law on Friday, April 13. In it, minor offenses are decriminalized, minor offenses are diverted from prosecution and bail is reduced. Importantly, mandatory minimums for non-opiate, non-weight retail drug offenses are repealed or limited. Contrary to this, mandatory minimums for opioid trafficking were increased. This increase in mandatory minimums for opioid trafficking is incredibly important considering how deadly and dire the opioid crisis is. Reducing the mandatory minimum for less serious drug offenses helps to keep fewer people in jail for less serious drug offenses.
When it comes to the prisons themselves, the bill includes reductions to solitary confinement and improvements to prison conditions. These changes to solitary confinement include protecting LGBTQ prisoners from arbitrary use of restrictive housing, as well as ensuring that the restrictive housing conditions are more humane. Reforming prison conditions includes giving prisoners without high school diplomas access to education programs, treating prisoners for substance abuse disorders and creating a commission to study LGBTQ prisoners’ health.
A huge concern prisoners face as they leave prison is paying for the costs of prison. Prisoners already face huge barriers to re-entering society as their criminal record can bar them from obtaining housing and a job. Part of this bill would eliminate parole and probation fees for a certain amount of time after being released from prison. Additionally, criminal records will be made more private through a variation of policies such as excluding juvenile arrests from public police logs and preventing employers from investigating sealed or expunged cases.
While the bill tackles a ton of other criminal justice reforms, it also includes ways to reduce errors in the judicial system. There will be more of a push toward oversight of forensic labs as well as increased access to compensation for wrongful convictions.
This bill is the biggest criminal justice overhaul for the state of Massachusetts in decades. The bill passed by a 37-0 measure in the State Senate and by a 148-5 measure in the State House. It’s 121 pages long and truly seeks to turn prison into a more rehabilitative process. While the price-tag of the bill is still unclear, legislators are sure the bill will save money in the long run by reducing prison populations.
As Martin Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, put it, “They are getting smarter on crime rather than just being tough on crime.” It has been an incredibly long time coming for a bill like this to pass the Massachusetts state legislature, and be signed into office by the Governor. Finally, prisoners will start to be treated humanely and with the decency and respect they deserve. There will be more support given to the wrongly accused, a group often overlooked by state legislatures and more support given to those who face discrimination while in prison. Entering prison already provides an incredible burden on a person and their family, and this bill will help to ease that burden by lessening costs and providing more educational opportunities. Even though this bill is not making the headlines of national news, it’s surely helping the lives of all Massachusetts residents.