Senate President Stan Rosenberg

Massachusetts Senate President Stan Rosenberg.

Credit: Mike Deehan/WGBH News

Rosenberg Sees Senate Stalling Recidivism Bill Unless Sentencing Deal Is Made

August 31, 2017

Things will be heating up in the Massachusetts Legislature this fall as lawmakers prepare for the second half of their two-year session, when leaders from both branches promise they'll get more done on the back nine than the front.

Both House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg agree that the debate over changes to the criminal justice system will dominate much of the fall's agenda. But it's a three-way dance over just how far to go in reforming the laws, with ferocious debate over whether to end mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Baker says he doesn't really want to touch mandatory minimums right now. DeLeo wants to do a more limited bill addressing recidivism first, then maybe go further and see what else they can do.

Then you have the Senate. Its members seem to agree with criminal justice reform advocates that say you can't just do one part and hope you'll get around to doing the other part later. Rosenberg told WGBH News Wednesday that the Senate is unlikely to vote on the recidivism bill without assurances that sentencing and other pre-prison issues are addressed in a second bill.

"The one place where I think there is general agreement in the Senate is that we are not likely to be able to do the Council of State Governments report unless there is a debate, commitment and either a final product or pretty far along in a conference committee on reforms that go beyond the CSG report," Rosenberg said.

There are two major areas of the justice system that could be in for an overhaul. The first is what Beacon Hill shorthand is calling the "back end" — that's what happens to prisoners once they're released. And most everyone on Beacon Hill agrees that they should put in place post-release reforms like access to job training, more drug abuse treatment and improvements to the probation system to help reduce recidivism rates.

Baker filed a bill that's generally already agreed upon by the governor and the Democrats that they say will help keep people from going back to jail once they're out.

The "front end" is everything that comes before someone goes to prison. Factors like expunging criminal records, diverting cases from criminal court to drug treatment, and especially, what to do about mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders are on the minds of Democratic lawmakers who want more drastic changes to the justice system than what's currently on the table.

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