Healey outlines criminal justice vision

Backs what Baker proposed, but wants to take more holistic approach


ATTORNEY GENERAL MAURA HEALEY sent a letter to two key lawmakers this week outlining her vision for criminal justice reform, including an overhaul of bail and sentencing practices that could serve as a guidepost for a debate that’s expected to heat up this fall.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have placed criminal justice reform near the top of their agenda for when they return from summer recess in September, but the scope of their efforts remains a major question mark.

With the cooperation of Gov. Charlie Baker and the courts, the Legislature enlisted the Council of State Governments in 2015 to help oversee a review of the state’s justice system with the goal of using data to reduce recidivism rates, prison population, and taxpayer costs, while enhancing public safety.

The result was a bill filed this session by Baker that seeks to increase access to work-release programs for inmates, raise the cap on good time credits, and improve post-release supervision. But many groups, including the Black and Latino Legislative caucus, have been pressuring leadership to go further.

Healey wrote a six-page letter to the chairs of the Judiciary Committee – Rep. Claire Cronin and Sen. William Brownsberger – in support of Baker’s bill as a strategy to “better prepare people as they reintegrate into the community.”

“But we have more work to do,” she wrote in the letter delivered Monday. “We need to look at our criminal justice system holistically, across the full spectrum of a person’s involvement. We must shift the lens by increasing our focus on prevention and treatment programs, investing in diversion programs and reentry services, updating our statutes to avoid unnecessary punishment for certain crimes, and reducing barriers for those coming out of prison.”

Healey called for better access to diversion programs, particularly for low-level, non-violent offenders, to reduce recidivism, and urged the Legislature to require the statewide adoption of eyewitness identification policies. The Charlestown Democrat said errors made by eyewitnesses in criminal investigations are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States.

Just Tuesday, the 1981 conviction of Frederick Clay for the murder of a Boston cab driver at the age of 16 was vacated.

Clay’s attorney Lisa Kavanaugh said Clay was convicted based on the testimony of two eyewitnesses “who confirmed his identity only after being hypnotized by police investigators and shown the same array of photos several times.”

“New identification science reveals that this type of identification is profoundly flawed,” Kavanaugh said in a statement.

Healey also recommended the use of pre-trial service programs or other alternatives to bail to ensure that a defendant appears in court and is not detained solely because they lack the financial resources to post bail.

Opinions on mandatory minimum sentencing are varied on Beacon Hill, with at least one Democrat running for governor in 2018, Jay Gonzalez, calling for their complete elimination. Healey supports eliminating mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses that don’t involve trafficking or minors, and said she’d be willing to consider amending the threshold amounts that trigger trafficking charges.

In place of mandatory minimums, Healey said, sentencing guidelines should be in place to ensure consistency. As an alternative, she said lawmakers could consider a “safety valve” for drug offenses that would allow judges to deviate from minimum sentencing guidelines based on the circumstances of a case and the history of the offender.

“Our state could benefit from crafting its own safety valve that would provide for increased flexibility in sentencing for certain drug offenders, while ensuring strong sentences for serious drug traffickers or those engaged in violence,” she wrote.

The attorney general also recommended a full review of offender fees and the option of community service for those lacking an ability to pay, consideration of further changes to the criminal offender record access and expungement laws and accommodations for inmates who are terminally ill or permanently incapacitated.

Meet the Author

Matt Murphy

State House News Service
The Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Baker’s bill (H 74) in June, and last month the Senate held a day-long private summit at the UMass Club where the Baker administration, district attorneys, sheriffs, judges, ex-cons and advocates were all invited to share their perspectives.

“Everybody’s talking about doing criminal justice at some point in the fall,” Brownsberger said at the time.