The Massachusetts Senate passed a sweeping bill that would upend state laws on crime and punishment, aiming to reduce the number of people ensnared in the thicket of the criminal justice system and ease the tough-on-crime approach of decades past, including raising the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 19, the highest in the nation, reported the Boston Globe.
“We have to lift people up, not lock people up,” said Senator William N. Brownsberger, the legislation’s top author, on the Senate floor. “We have to cut the chains that hold people down when they are trying to get back up on their feet.”
The legislation, which passed just before 1:30 a.m. on October 27, 2017 after more than 14 hours of debate, would repeal mandatory minimum prison sentences for several drug-dealing crimes such as selling heroin within 300 feet of a school; make those changes retroactive so dealers will be able to earn release weeks or months early; legalize sex between young teens close in age; raise the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 19, the highest in the nation; and diminish the procession of fees, fines, and license suspensions that people accused or convicted of a crime often must endure.
Advocates say the bill is a long overdue antidote to a poisonous bureaucracy that has unnecessarily ensnared generations of people — often poor, often black or Latino — in the criminal justice system.
However, many law enforcement officials warn the bill would soften crime laws to the point that it undercuts the pursuit of justice, ignore the interests of victims, and put at risk the sharp decrease in violent crime Massachusetts has seen since the early 1990s. The status quo, they say, is a far cry from other states’ Draconian systems of punishment and has, for the most part, served the state’s nearly 7 million residents well.
Nine of the state’s 11 district attorneys warned in a letter Monday against a “return to the old and discredited ways of the past.” They said that “many of the proposals contained in this legislation turn the clock back.”
And law enforcement officials — who hope the House of Representatives proposes a more prosecutor-friendly bill — point to the state’s relatively low incarceration rate as proof of Massachusetts’ more enlightened position.
In 2015, Massachusetts had the second-lowest imprisonment rate, with 179 sentenced prisoners for every 100,000 people, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Nationally, 458 prisoners were sentenced to more than one year in state or federal prison per 100,000 US residents.
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