The State Senate Just Passed a Huge Criminal Justice Bill

Here's what it would do.

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Big, sweeping changes to Massachusetts’ criminal justice system have just passed in the state Senate—a step forward for controversial legislation aimed at curbing the number of people we throw in prison, and doing away with some of the burdens placed on people who break the law.

After lengthy debate—lawmakers stayed at the State House until the wee hours of Friday morning—the bill passed the Democrat-dominated Senate 27-10. Next it will have to be taken up by the House, which is also dominated by Democrats but tilts less toward the left.

It’s been supported by advocates for criminal justice reform hoping to unwind systemic over-incarceration, particularly among racial minorities, but opposed by others—including nine of Massachusetts’ 11 district attorneys—who say it dampens the impact of the rule of law. “This 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,” the prosecutors wrote in a letter, noting that the state’s incarceration rate is the country’s second-lowest.

The ACLU, meanwhile, said the vote “showed courage, compassion, and moral leadership.”

Here’s some of what the Senate’s enormous bill would do:

  • Increase the age at which a person is punished in the juvenile justice system to include 18-year-olds. Massachusetts would become the only state with 19 as the so-called age of criminal majority.
  • Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in a number of cases, including for smaller-time drug dealers and dealers arrested within 300 feet of a school. People already imprisoned on those mandatory minimums would be able to seek early release.
  • Protect underage drinkers who seek medical help for a friend who overdoses on alcohol.
  • Legalize consensual sex among teenagers who are close in age (for example an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old). This is sometimes called a “Romeo and Juliet” law.
  • Keep parents from being forced to testify against children under 18.
  • Permit the state to charge dealers with murder in cases where a customer overdoses and dies after using a drug like fentanyl, the powerful and deadly heroin additive that has exacerbated the opioid crisis. Language was added to the bill that would exempt a murder charge in cases in which someone simply shares a drug with another user.
  • Cut back on rules that let the state suspend a driver’s license for infractions that don’t involve driving, and address certain fines and fees.
  • Restrict the use of solitary confinement.
  • The bill would not criminalize so-called “revenge porn.” A proposal to do so was voted down by a vote of 18-19.
  • Nor will it expand the cases in which police can wiretap suspects, another idea that did not clear the Senate.

Of course, a lot of that could change once the House takes up the issue, which, the State House News Service reports, could be soon. Stay tuned.