Thursday, July 19, 2012

Massachusetts Reforms Move Forward!

The Massachusetts state legislature is moving on reforms to some of its mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws.  FAMM has been hard at work to get the best bills possible, and we're still working to get them passed.  Here's the full story.

On Tuesday evening, the legislative conference committee that has been working on a sentencing bill reported out a final bill, H.4286. The bill includes eligibility for parole, work release and earned good time for some drug offenders now in prison. Unfortunately, it also includes a new "three strikes" law.

Last night, the House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote of 139 to 14. House members could not offer any amendments; they could only vote "yes" or "no." These developments happened so quickly that we didn't have time to tell our members ahead of time.

What happens next? The bill now goes to the Senate, which is expected to consider the bill today. As with the House, the Senate can only vote "yes" or "no." We expect that the bill will pass in the Senate as well. It then will be sent to Gov. Patrick.

The Governor's response. The Governor will have 10 days to do one of three things: 1) sign the bill into law; 2) send it back to the Legislature with amendments making changes that he wants; or 3) veto the entire bill. FAMM will ask him to file amendments (option #2) to improve both the mandatory minimum reforms and the habitual offender/three strikes law. The Legislature can adopt the amendments or reject them.

Mandatory minimum reforms. The final bill includes the same reforms that were in earlier drafts of the bill (see our July 29 update for more details):

* Eligibility for parole, work release and earned good time for some drug offenders now in prison;
* Reduced mandatory minimums for some drug offenses;
* Increased drug weights for some trafficking offenses;
* School zones reduced to 300 feet;
* School zone law doesn't apply between midnight and 5 a.m.

Increased earned good time. The final bill includes the same increases that were in earlier drafts of the bill. Again, see our July 29 update for the details.

Habitual offenders/3 strikes. The final bill includes one improvement for habitual offenders, which we were very glad to see. For the section of the bill that can apply to drug offenders, someone can be prosecuted as an habitual offender only if the two prior felony convictions resulted in prison sentences of at least three years for each offense. If convicted of the third felony, he or she will receive the maximum sentence possible, but will be eligible for parole after serving two-thirds of the sentence.

The final bill also creates a new "three strikes" law, where all three convictions must be from a list of serious crimes. That list does not include any drug offenses. Third strikers will receive maximum sentences with no parole. One amendment that FAMM will ask the Governor to file would create a "safety valve" to allow a court to decide that one of the two prior felonies should not be considered a "strike."

We will let you know when the Senate votes. In the meantime, please let us know if you have any questions.

***Note:  The bill is not a law yet!  If it becomes law, it would only apply to people convicted in Massachusetts state courts, not to people convicted in federal courts or in any other state's courts.

Barbara J. Dougan
Massachusetts Project Director