February 26, 2017

On Beacon Hill: Doing time, with Baker and Healey and Trump

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Katie Lannan / State House News Service

Protesters with the I Have A Future/Youth Jobs Coalition wait for Gov. Charlie Baker after an event where he swore in a new Black Advisory Coalition. The group is among those calling for broader criminal justice reforms than those proposed in the Council of State Governments report.

Recap and analysis of the week in state, and federal, government
from State House News Service

After bottling up discussions in a roughly yearlong study, state officials this week uncorked a proposal to slow the criminal justice system’s revolving door of recidivism.

The plan, filed by Gov. Charlie Baker, would afford convicted traffickers in marijuana and cocaine an opportunity to reduce their time of incarceration by participating in programs behind bars. That same opportunity would not be extended to traffickers in heroin and other opiates under the bill.

The long-awaited criminal justice reform bill doesn’t do much else in its current form. But even the strongest advocates of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes called the legislation a good, if small, first step.

The road to a more comprehensive overhaul of the Commonwealth’s punishment policies will likely be long and winding.

The perspective of voters, and lawmakers, in more suburban and rural communities around the state is likely different, and perhaps less personal, than the neighbors of Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz. At last month’s Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast, the Jamaica Plain Democrat described how there are city blocks in her district where not one household is unaffected by the criminal justice system.

There are likely cul de sacs and country roads elsewhere in the state where the criminal courts are a mere abstraction for all who live there.

Racial disparities in the prison population are one of the problems reformers hope to address.

Tight budgets might come to the aid of those seeking further reductions in the prison population. It cost an average of about $53,000 annually to house a prison inmate as of fiscal year 2014.

A continued reduction in the Massachusetts prison population — Baker has emphasized that the number of prisoners has fallen under his watch — could free up budget dollars for other priorities, since tax revenue growth has been sluggish for an extended period despite low unemployment.

Yet from a political perspective, the elected officials who craft state laws must worry that today’s trafficker in “maui waui” or “sour diesel” could, if freed, go on to commit future crimes that shock the public conscience and call into question any steps toward leniency.

Pixabay

State legislators are keeping legal marijuana atop their agenda.

Speaking of marijuana strains, the two co-chairpersons of the Legislature’s Committee on Marijuana Policy this week outlined their approach as they consider changes to the voter-approved law legalizing the eventual retail sale of the leafy drug.

Braintree Democrat Rep. Mark Cusack and Somerville Sen. Patricia Jehlen, also a Democrat, subscribe to the theory that voters endorsed the thrust of marijuana legalization without supporting every detail of the ballot question.

Pro-pot liberals might become conflicted between using marijuana excise taxes to increase state revenue — as Medicaid gobbles up budget allocations — and their goal of making regulated weed affordable, thereby cutting out the illicit market.

Meanwhile, the federal government could play a bigger role in enforcing its prohibition of the drug. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer recently said he believes the public “will see greater enforcement” of federal marijuana laws.

Talk of stepped-up anti-pot enforcement was not the only way the Trump administration intruded on the Congressional recess, which coincided with school vacation week in Massachusetts.

Top state officials responded last week to the latest policy move out of Washington, D.C., rolling back a roughly nine-month-old directive to honor students’ bathroom gender identities in schools.

The move by the U.S. education and justice departments will have no direct effect on Bay State students’ rights, as state laws already provide protections to transgender children and adults. The legal effect in other states is also debatable, as a Texas judge had previously barred enforcement nationwide of the Obama administration guidance.

But as a symbolic gesture, the Trump administration move went down like a glass of syrup of ipecac among the officials who rallied support for transgender rights in Massachusetts.

— Andy Metzger

SAY WHAT?

“They seem to be hell-bent on punching down, and I would like to see Donald Trump pick on somebody his own size and not a child. … I think it’s symbolic that the first order of business by our new United States attorney general was to go after vulnerable kids, and in particular transgender students.” 

— Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey on the Trump administration’s reversal of Obama-era federal transgender guidelines

ALSO ON THE AGENDA

  • Baker taps black leaders, including Becker’s Johnson, for advisory panel
  • Video: New commission members discuss what’s next
  • McGovern joins bipartisan chorus in calling for Congressional war vote
  • State reports rising tax revenues
  • Healy, Baker among officials disappointed in Trump transgender move


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