New Criminal Justice Bill Passes in MA

Some significant changes in the Massachusetts criminal justice system may soon become law after the Senate passed S 2185. The bill passed by a final vote of 27-10, with one senator absent. The legislation awaits review by the House chamber which, although also dominated by Democrats, could see some revisions though the bill’s advocates are optimistic that most of its provisions will remain intact.

The new legislation addresses many concerns of the judiciary and of criminal justice lawyers by returning discretion in sentencing to judges where mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses have become common. In many cases, mandatory sentences pertain to drug offenses and have unfairly targeted minorities. Nationwide, there has been considerable debate regarding mass incarceration that has made the US a leader in imprisoning more of its citizens than just a handful of other countries.

Other provisions in the criminal justice bill seek to protect persons who are seeking help for those in need of urgent medical care despite their own unlawful circumstances or to shield them from criminal prosecution. Another item would prosecute drug dealers whose customers died from use of the drug they purchased, though users who share the drug with another person who died would not be prosecuted.

County district attorneys are not so enthusiastic about the bill. 9 of the state’s 11 district attorneys sent a letter to the Senate expressing its dismay and wrote that it “…undermines the cause and pursuit of fair and equal justice for all, largely ignores the interests of victims of crime, and puts at risk the undeniable strides and unparalleled success of Massachusetts’ approach to public safety and criminal justice for at least the last 25 years.” As far as the mass incarceration issue, the DAs stressed that our state has the second lowest rate in the nation.

There is always a balance when it comes to the rights of victims and those who end up in the criminal justice system Finding a fair and equitable compromise is rarely easy, and advocates for either have sound arguments to support their respective positions.

Some of the changes appeared to be more commonsense. There were also a number of proposals that did not pass, but just barely.

The provisions of the new bill include:

  • Eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for smaller drug dealers and for those dealers arrested within 300 feet of a school. Inmates already incarcerated pursuant to mandatory sentencing under this provision can apply for early release. Advocates cited studies showing that the previous law would nab dealers who had no intention of selling drugs to any one in or near a school or park or who just happened to be in close proximity to one.
  • Changes the jurisdiction of the juvenile court to include 18-year olds, becoming the only state in the nation where age 19 is the age of criminal majority. Of course, some juveniles who commit certain serious crimes such as first degree murder or sexual assault may still be tried as adults. Those individuals would be housed in juvenile facilities until old enough to be moved to an adult prison. This change was prompted by research indicating that a person’s brain is still developing at age 19 or 20, and that punishing juveniles the same as adults is not effective.
  • Legalizes consensual sex among teenagers who are close in age, such as 18 and 15.
  • Eliminates the requirement that parents testify against their children who are under the age of 18.
  • Restricts solitary confinement in many cases. Studies have shown that it is not an effective tool for reducing problems in prisons and leads to serious mental health and physical problems. This could possibly adversely affect inmates who spent time in solitary confinement once they were released into the community.
  • Cuts back on rules that lead to suspension of a person’s driver’s license for infractions that do not involve driving
  • Protects underage drinkers who seek medical attention for another person experiencing an alcohol overdose
  • Allows the state to charge with murder a drug dealer whose product leads to a death of a customer. This does not include a user who shared his/her drugs with another person who dies from its use. This provision was in response to the opioid epidemic and especially to the use of fetanyl, a deadly heroin additive, that many states including Massachusetts are seeing more of among addicts.

Two measures that did not pass are:

  • Criminalizing revenge porn or the malicious use of nude or sexually explicit photographs. This failed to pass by one vote.
  • Expanding the use of wiretapping to include suspects who are not part of organized crime

The bill does await House approval so these measures are not the law of the state as yet.

Retain Criminal Justice Lawyer Paul R. Moraski

Paul R. Moraski of Salem is a criminal justice lawyer who defends and represents the interests and rights of those accused of various crimes. He has handled misdemeanor and felony matters throughout the state and has earned the accolades of clients and others for his tireless advocacy and dedication to their cases. Call his office today for a consultation regarding your criminal matter at (978) 397-0011.