Criminal justice reform bill stalls
Branches at odds over repeal of driver’s license suspension for drug offenders
A BILL TO end the mandatory suspension of the driver’s license of any drug offender, which looked like it was sailing through the State House as a consensus-winning, early step in a new push for criminal justice reform, has hit snag.
There is broad agreement among legislators, Gov. Charlie Baker, and Attorney General Maura Healey to pull back from a 1989 law that mandated the suspension of the driver’s license of anyone convicted of a drug offense, whether a simple possession charge or large-scale drug trafficking.
But the Senate and House have approved different versions of a repeal measure and there has been no movement to find common ground on the bill for close to two weeks.
Last fall, the Senate unanimously approved legislation to repeal the statute. Earlier this month, the House also voted unanimously to repeal the law, but included a Republican-sponsored amendment to maintain the license revocation for one category of drug offenders: those convicted of drug trafficking, the most serious level of drug charges.
The House could either act on the revised bill without the carve-out for trafficking offenses or call for a conference committee to try to work out a compromise between the two branches. So far, no action has been taken.
Sen. Harriette Chandler, a cosponsor of the bill with Rep. Elizabeth Malia, says the House amendment is counterproductive because it would only serve to hamper those convicted of drug crimes from turning to more positive pursuits once they’ve served time in prison.
“I was surprised and I was disappointed,” Chandler said of the House amendment. “I felt it was going back to the same kind of thinking that got us to this place originally.”
The law was passed during the tough-on-crime era in the late 1980s. A year after its 1989 passage, a federal law was enacted that withheld some federal highway funding unless a state suspended drug offenders’ licenses for at least six months. States were allowed to opt out of the federal provision, and most have, including every other New England state.
The suspension ranges from one to five years, depending on the severity of the drug charges.
Those pushing to repeal the statute say the license revocation law only makes it harder for ex-offenders to get to work or carry out family responsibilities such as getting children to child care or school – and more likely to become part of the state’s 40 percent recidivism rate.
“If we wanted to create a mechanism to push people back to illegal drug use and into trouble, this is it,” Malia told CommonWealth last summer. “It’s insane. It’s totally counterproductive. It’s terrible public policy.”
The Republican amendment excluded marijuana traffickers from the sanction, and it allows offenders to apply for a hardship license reinstatement as soon as they leave prison.
But advocates say there is no rationale for maintaining the suspension statute for trafficking.
“I would challenge anyone to find data or evidence that keeping someone who was convicted of trafficking from having their driver’s license somehow enhances public safety,” said Barbara Dougan, who directs the Massachusetts office of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “It sounds like a flashback to outdated thinking.”
In 2014, 2,275 people faced license suspension in Massachusetts because of a drug conviction. It’s not clear how many people would still face suspension if the sanction were left in place for traffickers.
The license suspension applies regardless of whether an automobile was involved in the drug crime. Advocates point out there is no similar statute suspending driving privileges for those convicted of other crimes, including violent offenses.“If a person serves their time for a crime, shouldn’t they have an opportunity to move forward with their life when their time is served,” said Cassandra Bensahih, director of Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Advocating for Community Advancement, a Worcester-based organization that has spearheaded the repeal effort. “We are hoping this amendment will go away and we can get a bill without these changes.”
Malia’s office said they had no information on when the House might take up the measure.