Category: State House News Service

Justice reformers set their sights on life sentences

By Michael P. Norton STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE Published: 2/28/2019 11:06:02 PM

Now that the landmark 2018 criminal justice reform law is on the books, lawmakers are exploring additional ideas and “even harder work,” as Sen. Jamie Eldridge put it Thursday, including the possibility of releasing prisoners serving life-without-parole sentences for the most serious crimes, including murder.

Eldridge and Rep. Mary Keefe on Thursday hosted a meeting of the Criminal Justice Reform Caucus where the focus was on legislation eliminating life sentences without the possibility of parole. Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project said a record 206,000 people are serving life terms in prisons across the nation. That’s more than the entire prison population in 1970, he said.

In Massachusetts, 1,018 people in 2016 were serving life sentence without the possibility of parole.

“There’s beginning to be increasing questioning of these policies around the country,” Mauer said, adding that “people age out of the high crime years” and pose “very much diminished” public safety risks in their older years.

Under legislation sponsored by Rep. Jay Livingstone and Sen. Joseph Boncore, all people serving life sentences would have the opportunity for a parole hearing after 25 years, a change in law that would apply retroactively so that it would affect people currently incarcerated. Both bills are titled “An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration.”

Noting the number of people serving life sentences has “skyrocketed,” Eldridge said the bill deserves attention, although he told the News Service after the briefing that as chairman of the Judiciary Committee he needs to fully review the bill and declined to comment on his position on the legislation.

“We addressed some of the non-violent mandatory minimum drug crimes, repealing them last session,” Eldridge said, referring to a law that also emphasized treating offenders for substance use addiction. “But now we need to get into, in some ways, the more nuanced discussions around people who are in prison for violent crimes and whether we should be changing the sentencing for some group of those individuals.”

A provision in the 2018 law permitting medical parole, Livingstone said, shows lawmakers are open to changes that reduce incarceration costs while taking into account the danger that individuals pose if released from prison.

Asked about her position on the bill, Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, who attended Thursday’s briefing, told the News Service that she was still gathering information on the topic. In 1980, Ryan was the victim of a vicious assault and a witness to the murder of her then-boyfriend.

Ryan said the life-without-parole sentence is reserved for first degree murder, and outlined considerations for lawmakers weighing the bill.

“There’s all of those considerations of – what are we trying to accomplish through incarceration? How has somebody behaved while in custody? And as is clearly true, none of us would ever want to be defined by the worst act of our lives,” said Ryan, a veteran prosecutor whose district spans 54 cities and towns and includes a quarter of the state’s population. “And then you have to weigh against that the loss that victims’ families have suffered and sometimes it isn’t just the immediate loss, it’s the continuing piece. So, many of the things you heard about that continued for years when someone’s in custody, obviously the same thing is happening on the other side. So it is a balance. And then obviously our overall goal is the protection of the public safety and the concern about – what does real rehabilition mean? When and is someone ready to be back out in society, while the rest of us are keeping folks safe?“

Livingstone, who attracted 27 co-sponsors to his bill, noted it’s been 22 years since the last commutation of a sentence for a person serving life without parole. Commutations must be recommended by governors, and approved by the eight-member Governor’s Council. He also said the bill would apply to convicted murderers, people with stacked sentences and those convicted under the “three strikes” law.

According to backers of the Livingstone and Boncore bills, Massachusetts has a lower overall incarceration rate than most other states but ranks second among all states for the highest percentage of its prisoners serving life-without-parole sentences.

The number of incarcerated men over the age of 60 increased 41 percent between 2010 and 2018, while the overall prison population declined by 18 percent, according to Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, and it’s up to three times more expensive to house an elderly prisoner in the general population.

The proclivity to commit crime is “highly age dependent,” the group said in literature distributed at the event, adding, “The peak age is in one’s early to mid-twenties, and continues to decline as one ages. It makes little sense to mandate that a person in their twenties must stay in prison for the rest of their life without a chance to later determine if they still pose a threat to public safety. Incarcerating people who pose no threat is a waste of resources.”

Membership in the caucus co-chaired by Eldridge and Keefe has increased in the past four years, Eldridge said, and the “standing room only” attendance at Thursday’s briefing “reflects the fact that as much as we passed a major reform last session, there’s still a need and an interest and enthusiasm for more reform.”

Senator: Duck boat bill features ‘common sense’ requirements


BOSTON — The parents of a woman killed when a tour vehicle hit her scooter said Wednesday that newly proposed safety legislation, if passed, would represent “important first steps” in preventing similar accidents.

“Safety of the people on the streets is the most important thing to us right now,” said Martha Warmuth, whose adult daughter, Allison, died after the April 30 crash. “We can’t get our daughter back.”

Warmuth and her husband Ivan joined Sens. William Brownsberger and Joseph Boncore and Rep. Jay Livingstone to announce the filing of a bill (SD 2856) setting new safety requirements for tour vehicles, particularly the amphibious ones commonly known as duck boats.

The bill would prohibit drivers of sight-seeing vehicles from also acting as tour guides, and would require the installation of cameras and proximity sensors on amphibious vehicles.

Brownsberger, who filed the bill on Friday, said its provisions address a “basic distracted driving issue” as well as blind spots that are a consequence of the duck boat design.

“We are convinced that had these two requirements been in place, our daughter would be alive today,” Ivan Warmuth said. “There may be many additional measures that could be taken, but these two are obvious, important first steps.”

Officials from Boston Duck Tours — the company that operates Boston’s most well-known amphibious tours, and whose vehicle was involved in the crash with Warmuth — said they have already installed cameras on each boat and plan to add sensors.

Brownsberger told reporters he has reached out to the company and looks forward to meeting with its representatives.

Though the bill was filed late in the legislative calendar, Brownsberger said he hopes his colleagues will view it as “something that’s just so, you’ve got to do it, let’s get it done.” Formal sessions end for the year on July 31.

The House and Senate chairmen of the Joint Committee on Transportation, Rep. William Straus and Sen. Thomas McGee, are both co-sponsors of the bill, Brownsberger said.

In a statement, Straus said the bill identified a number of issues that “warrant scrutiny,” and McGee said it “takes another step towards ensuring that our roads are safe for residents and tourists alike.”

Brownsberger described the legislation as a codification of existing best practices in the industry. Amphibious tour vehicles in Seattle started using blind spot cameras after an accident in 2011, and at least one Boston tour operator currently staffs vehicles with both drivers and separate tour guides, according to Brownsberger’s office.

A statement from Boston Duck Tours said the company has “rigorous standards, training and oversight along with a fleet of modern duck boats, designed to insure the safety of the motoring public and pedestrians.”

“In the weeks since the tragic accident, we have taken several steps to further enhance the safety of the vehicles to ensure that it is at the highest possible level,” the statement said. “We have already installed a new camera on each duck, which will complement the eight existing mirrors to address any blind spots. We also plan to add sensory equipment to the front and back of the vehicle in the near term. We await the conclusion of the City of Boston’s investigation and will collaborate with them on any additional safety procedures that they recommend.”

The proposed legislation is “bigger than” the April accident, and lawmakers do not plan to wait to see the findings of any one particular investigation, Brownsberger said.

“I think it’s very important that we not zero in on just this accident,” he said. “From a legislative standpoint, we’re not waiting for the results of an investigation, nor is there anything that could come out of this investigation that would really affect our views that these are important, common sense, basic safety practices that the industry should move to, period.”

Public Records Overhaul Sent to Baker’s Desk

By Michael P. Norton
The Massachusetts House and Senate each voted unanimously Wednesday to advance to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk a compromise bill that represents the first major overhaul of public records access laws in 43 years.

In addition to requiring state agencies and cities and towns to designate records officers to field requests, the proposal requires public agencies to provide requested public records within 10 business days, while allowing for extensions beyond that deadline capped at five business days from the original request for a state agency and 15 for a municipality. The bill further caps the length of appeals if records are denied and requesters appeal to the Secretary of State.

The bill (H 4333) also encourages public agencies to make electronic public records more readily available to requesters when records are already in electronic formats, and limits the costs public entities may charge for making copies or for employee time spent assembling records.

“This is a core issue of making our government, our democracy accessible to everyone,” said Sen. Jason Lewis, a Winchester Democrat who served on the six-member conference committee that agreed to a consensus bill this week. “Public records are, as the name says, public.”

Rep. Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat, said the bill “struck such an exquisite balance” between privacy concerns and transparency.

Lawmakers who worked on reconciling the House version with a Senate bill kept their conference committee meetings open and invited the media to cover the meetings – a departure from the usual closed conference meetings where lawmakers make decisions on major bills.

Sen. Joan Lovely of Salem, the Senate’s lead negotiator on the bill, said the bill allows a municipality to refuse to furnish records if someone has failed to pick up previously produced records, a situation that public officials said they’ve encountered. “If you don’t pick up and pay for a record you are not entitled to the next one,” she said.

Rep. Stephen Kulik, one of the bill’s negotiators, said it would not add unfunded mandates onto municipalities, which he said handle the bulk of requests.

Sen. Donald Humason of Westfield, another conferee, said smaller cities and towns with fewer employees would be able to comply with the bill’s requirements.

The bill also permits the courts to award reasonable attorney fees and costs when a records requester obtains relief, and designates as public records documents made or received by entities that receive funds from the MBTA for the payment of pensions.

A commission of legislators would be created under the bill to examine expanding the public records law to cover aspects of the legislative process on Beacon Hill. The bill calls on that commission to also look at “the constitutionality and practicality of subjecting the general court, the executive office of the governor, and the judicial branch to the public records law.” A report would be due by Dec. 30, 2017.

“Governor Baker was pleased to institute a new public records reform policy for the executive branch to make state government more transparent and is pleased that many of the concepts from the administration’s initiative were included in this legislation. The administration will carefully review the bill,” Elizabeth Guyton, a spokeswoman for Gov. Charlie Baker, said in a statement.

House Panel Polling Energy Bill with Hydro, Offshore Wind Initiatives

By Matt Murphy

Utilities would be required to solicit and purchase a combined 2,400 megawatts of renewable hydro and offshore wind power through long-term contracts under a House energy bill that began moving through committee on Monday.

The bill, which is being voted on by members of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, would direct utilities by next January to solicit contracts of between 15 to 20 years for the purchase of 1,200 megawatts of delivered hydropower.

By July of next year, utilities would be required to solicit similar long-term contracts for an additional 1,200 megawatts of “nameplate capacity” offshore wind, according to a copy of the bill obtained by the News Service. Projects eligible for the contracts would be restricted to those operating in a “competitively solicited federal lease area,” according to the bill.

“I personally think what we’re doing obviously is diversifying our energy portfolio. This is, no question, a very aggressive energy and environmental bill that will reduce carbon and meet our (Global Warming Solutions Act) goals and focuses on trying to jump-start offshore wind and create a viable opportunity for a potential supply chain and other economic growth across the Commonwealth,” said Rep. Thomas Golden, co-chair of the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee.

Baker has been pushing since last year for the Legislature to authorize the solicitation of hydropower that could be imported from Canada as a means to address the retirements of multiple fossil fuel plants and Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in the coming years.

The governor has pitched hydropower as a clean energy source that could help meet the state’s baseload energy capacity needs without jeopardizing its carbon emissions reduction goals, or subjecting the state to volatile prices on the spot energy market.

Committee members have until Tuesday at 11 a.m. to vote on the bill, and Golden said he expects it to be debated sometime in June.

One of the major differences between the House proposal and the bill filed by Baker last summer is the requirement for utilities to purchase the renewable energy. Baker has said repeatedly that one of the strengths of his bill is that if the proposals turn out to be too expensive, utilities wouldn’t have to buy the energy.

Golden said that under the bill the Department of Public Utilities and the Department of Energy Resources would still have a role to play in reviewing rates.

“I think we’re going to be OK on price. I think it will work itself out, and DPU and DOER are going to be up to the task to figure this out,” Golden said.

According to Golden, while the bill does not include a requirement for any land-based wind purchasing, utilities would be allowed under their procurement of hydropower to include onshore wind in the mix to get to 1,200 megawatts if they choose.

The bill also does not speak to the future of solar energy after lawmakers spent the better part of the past six months negotiating a lift in the cap on solar net metering. Solar advocates have now started to report that the new caps are already close to being reached in the National Grid service territory.

Golden said there will be time and opportunity for members to propose additions to the bill, whether related to energy efficiency, solar, energy storage or other measures.

“There’s still plenty of opportunity in the future, either on the floor and through Ways and Means,” Golden said.

[Further SHNS coverage developing]


Transgender Bill Cleared Judiciary Committee with Large Margins

By Andy Metzger

Reps. Colleen Garry, a Dracut Democrat, and James Lyons, an Andover Republican, were the only two members of the Judiciary Committee to vote against both versions of a transgender bill in a poll taken on Friday.
Republican Sen. Richard Ross, of Wrentham, and Republican Rep. Sheila Harrington, of Groton, both voted in favor of versions of the bill. Rep. John Velis, a Westfield Democrat, reserved his rights on both bills, according to a tally provided by the committee, which features mostly Democrats.
Both versions of the legislation (H 1577/ S 735) prohibit discrimination against transgender people in public accommodations and allow them to use the restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity.
The House redraft would take effect Jan. 1 and requires the attorney general to issue guidance and regulations for instances where people assert “gender identity for an improper purpose.”
One of the concerns with the bill is the theory that it could be abused by men claiming transgender status to gain access to women’s rooms for nefarious reasons. Supporters say it will end real access problems faced by transgender people.
Rep. Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat and sponsor of the legislation, previously told the News Service the bill has the support of more than 60 Democrats and it would be “helpful” for Republican members to make their positions known.
“I believe that there are other Republican legislators, who if the bill came up before us, would vote for it,” Rushing told the News Service in a mid-April discussion about the possibility of Republicans backing the bill in committee. He said, “We’ve been waiting for them to say something because obviously we want the governor to know that there are Republicans that are going to vote for this bill.”
Gov. Charlie Baker has not yet said whether he would approve the bill, counseling that he wants to see the details of any version that reaches his desk. On April 21 he released a statement that said, in part, that Baker “believes people should use the restroom facility they feel comfortable using.”
The House bill racked up eight favorable votes and two unfavorable votes with seven committee members reserving their rights. The Senate bill gained the support of seven committee members and was opposed by three as seven members reserved their rights.
All six Senate members of the committee voted in favor of the Senate version and reserved their rights on the House redraft. Rep. Michael Day, a Stoneham Democrat, voted against the Senate version and in favor of the House version.
While most House members reserved their rights on the Senate version, Rep. Evandro Carvalho, a Dorchester Democrat, voted in favor of it.
Senate President Stan Rosenberg said the chamber plans to take up the bill May 12, and the legislation has the backing of House Speaker Robert DeLeo.