SIGNING THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM BILL

Baker signs

Yesterday, at 3 pm, Governor Baker signed the big Criminal Justice Reform bills that the legislature has been working on for a year. It was a big win, and a big win for him, too — people I spoke to in my own neighborhood, East Boston, were well pleased by his signing it. Despite which, Baker said that he had some criticisms of them that he hoped to correct. My own view : “it’s a win for the state, and it’s a win for us too,” (I am working on the Governor’s re-election campaign, unpaid, by the way) “so let’s enjoy the win !”

Let us enjoy the win, indeed. The bill H. 4012 won approval by the House, 154 to 5, and S. 2371 by the Senate, 37 to 0. It was not a close call, or controversial.

There has been criticism of the bill, from some Sheriffs and prosecutors. A week ago, when State Representative Sheila Harrington (who was on the committee shepherding the final, amended House bill to the House floor) posted on facebook celebrating the House’s vote, I shared her post; and Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson soon came onto my post — yes, mine; why mine ? — commenting several times upon the bill in dire terms and at length.

What might any objections be, to bills enacted almost unanimously by our legislature ? Of sufficient seriousness that Governor Baker feels the need to say “yes, but” even to bills whose signing ceremony was well attended and which he and others posted, on social media,. in quite celebratory words ?

As is my usual practice, let’s, before we discuss further, read the actual language of the acts, S. 2371 and H. 4012 :

S. 2371 here : https://malegislature.gov/Bills/190/S2371

H. 4012 here : file:///C:/Users/nick%20shaheen/Downloads/H4012.pdf

The Senate bill, which is definitely a long read, includes, inter alia, a great deal of administrative procedure applied to sex crime data acquisition and evaluation; much detail about assessment of the gender and mental needs of youthful offenders; explicit directions to police departments barring any sort of identity profiling and requiring de-escalation tactics when responding to 911 calls.

The House bill details, and extensively re-writes, the State’s incarceration, parole, probation, and good-time credits systems. One can understand the annoyance that some sheriffs may feel about this comprehensive re-write of supervisory rules that they and the their staffs must now master. I fail, however, to understand objections based upon a theory of laxity. The detailed rules set forth in the act are onerous for any prisoner eligible for them (and some prisoners are not eligible at all) to adjust to, much less succeed at.

That said, the bills do change the overall theory of Massachusetts criminal procedure from one of imprisonment to one of treatment. I quote from MassLive’s coverage of the legislation :

Among the many provisions: The new law eliminates a handful of mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealing. It creates a process for records to be expunged for juveniles and young adults and for convictions for offenses that are no longer crimes, like marijuana possession.

The bill raises the minimum age of criminal responsibility from seven to 12 years old and decriminalizes some minor offenses for juveniles. It changes the way bail and fines and fees are levied to take into account someone’s ability to pay. It raises the threshold at which theft is considered a felony. It requires more humane conditions for inmates in solitary confinement.

Baker also signed a separate bill, which was the result of a year-long task force examining recidivism in Massachusetts. That bill enhances the programming available in prison and jails, enhances community supervision and expands behavioral health resources.

Thus the general direction of the legislation is to burden treatment and hospitals while de-emphasizing the corrections system itself. There will now be fewer people incarcerated, and for shorter periods of time. I can understand that some sheriffs find this prospect unhappy. The same can be said for corrections officers, always a politically powerful interest. There may well be layoffs. There definitely WILL be greater restraint on what corrections officers can do to prisoners, and their conduct will be closely monitored. Corrections officers may well object : but the level of control they exercise over imprisoned people is hardly limited by words of laws: the phrase “terrible things happen in prison” didn’t comer about by accident. If even one prisoner is saved from being raped or beaten because of the new laws, that is, in my mind, a positive thing.

Clearly, Baker has heard the complaints made by some sheriffs and some prosecutors and doesn’t want to be seen as dismissive of them. That’s OK. The larger fact is that he signed the bills, and did so in a big ceremony.

As he said at the signing, “The very positive elements of the bill far outweigh some of the concerns we have.”

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

 

 

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