Senate passes MBA-backed sentencing reform bill

Issue December 2009 By Bill Archambeault and Jennifer Rosinski

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 among offenders."

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 records.

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 change."

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."