Sentencing reform, a legislative priority of the Massachusetts
Bar Association, cleared a major hurdle Nov. 18 when the Senate
passed an MBA-backed bill that grants parole eligibility to
nonviolent drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences.
"We applaud the Senate's action on sentencing legislation," said
MBA General Counsel/Acting Executive Director Martin W. Healy.
"Passage of mandatory minimum reforms will not only save the
commonwealth millions of dollars, but reduce the rate of recidivism
The bill also changes the state's Criminal Offender Record
Information (CORI) System, making it easier for former prisoners to
find work by limiting employers' ability to access their criminal
A longstanding opponent of mandatory minimum sentences, the
MBA's Drug Policy Task Force issued a report earlier this year
recommending meaningful drug sentencing reform. The increase in the
state's correctional population - at a cost of $48,000 per offender
annually - is in part due to an increase in drug arrests. Under the
current sentencing laws, nonviolent drug offenders face a
one-size-fits-all system and have no incentive to plead guilty
because judges have no discretion over sentences.
MBA Drug Policy Task Force Chair and Past President David W.
White Jr. was enthusiastic that sentencing reform is making
progress after years of fruitless effort.
"The state has taken the first concrete steps toward sentencing
reform in decades, and the vote in the Senate demonstrates that the
Legislature's aware of public sentiment in support of sentencing
reform and that legislators are no longer afraid of being branded
as being too soft on crime," he said. "It's a giant step forward.
People have been arguing for sentencing reform for decades,
literally decades. We're only halfway there, but it is a sea
In addition to the cost savings, the legislation would be
expected to reduce recidivism. Instead of being released directly
into the community, offenders would be eligible for parole and
work-release programs. Numerous studies have shown such programs
improve public safety by helping offenders re-enter the community
and avoid committing new crimes.
The bill awaits action by the House of Representatives. Formal
legislative sessions have ended for the year.
"I'm hopeful the House will take this up promptly when the
Legislature reconvenes in January," White said.
The bill was hotly debated until the last minute, as it was
approved around midnight on Nov. 18 due to controversial
amendments. White expressed relief that language calling for a
"three-strikes-and-you're-out" mandatory sentencing provision was
removed from the final bill.
"It would have been a disaster for overcrowding and the budget,"
White said of the "three strikes" language. "If you look at how
adversely (mandatory incarceration) has affected California's
prison system - which wasn't even as strongly worded as this one -
you get a sense of how misguided it was."
State Sen. Cynthia Stone Creem (D-Newton), who co-chairs the
Joint Committee on the Judiciary, applauded her colleagues' vote on
CORI and sentencing reform.
"As a leading advocate for sentencing and CORI reforms, I am so
pleased an overwhelming majority of my colleagues in the Senate
voted in favor of the legislation. This comprehensive bill includes
provisions for nonviolent drug offenders to be eligible for parole
after serving two-thirds of their sentences, in order to monitor
their reintroduction to society as productive citizens; this change
alone is estimated to save the state several million per year, and
mimics laws in other states," she said.
"As Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee," Creem said, "I
believe enacting this bill would successfully reduce recidivism,
increase protections for job applicants and for employers through
updated CORI regulations, and broadly promote a 'smart-on-crime'
approach to our sentencing laws."