Charlie Baker signs off on sweeping criminal justice bill — but requests some changes
Governor Charlie Baker on Friday signed into law a sweeping overhaul to the state’s criminal justice system despite having “serious concerns” with some of its provisions, including a controversial change that would forbid parents from testifying against their minor children.
Flanked by dozens of lawmakers and elected officials during a packed bill-signing ceremony, Baker hailed the law as a step forward for the state’s criminal justice system.
“The law will undoubtedly result in a better criminal justice system and give people across the Commonwealth greater opportunities to turn their lives around,” Baker said.
But he also immediately filed a bill calling for several revisions, including committing $15 million in the final months of this fiscal year to fund new staff and technology that he said are crucial to meeting its mandates. In a letter sent Friday to lawmakers, he warned that some parts of the law he signed could have “unintended, negative consequences.”
It’s unclear how the Legislature will tackle Baker's requests, with a host of other priorities still ahead, and after lawmakers have already spent months, if not years, completing the criminal justice package he penned into law Friday.
Baker said he’s hopeful that, after speaking with lawmakers, they believe his proposals “deserve a good look.” But he stressed they also weren’t enough to derail the bill as a whole.
“In the grand scheme of things, the very positive elements of this bill far outweigh some of the concerns we have,” Baker said.
Notably, Baker flagged a controversial section of the bill that would forbid parents from testifying against their minor children. A mother who saw her 17-year-old son kill people, for example, couldn’t testify in court against him even if she wanted to, with the only exception being when the victim is a family member and resides in the household.
Baker instead is proposing shifting the ban on testimony into a “privilege that can be exercised by a parent or child.”
“If they don’t want to testify, they don’t have to,” he said.
But Senator William N. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat and coauthor of the legislation, said it’s a nonstarter, even though he views many of Baker’s other proposals “as clarifications, technical fixes” that could be taken up quickly.
“It’s an issue that the body has voted on, taken a position on. It’s a done deal, for now,” Brownsberger said. “It’s not a technical fix. It’s something that other people feel strongly about.”
Baker has suggested a range of other changes, including new language that would allow police, the Department of Early Education and Care, and other agencies to keep their access to certain records amid changes aimed at strengthening laws that seal records and expunge old convictions.
Baker also argued that some aspects of the law place “unnecessary burdens” on the state’s Department of Correction, and is seeking to more narrowly define what’s considered a “serious mental illness” when deciding to put an inmate into solitary confinement.
House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo on Friday was noncommittal when asked whether Baker’s changes would be fast-tracked, with the end of the session looming in July. He said the House has also begun factoring in costs from the new law into the budget proposal it unveiled this week.
“The Governor has raised some points, and I think obviously it will get a proper hearing. Where we go from there, I don’t know,” the Winthrop Democrat said.
Baker, who had until Sunday to take action on the bill, said he sought the separate bill to make changes because he didn’t want to delay putting the entire law and its “100 separate elements” into effect.
Baker on Friday also signed a separate bill approved by lawmakers last week, crafted to give many prisoners a greater opportunity to earn early release through participating in and completing rehabilitative programming.
The criminal justice overhaul is part of a national movement to ease punitive “tough-on-crime” measures crafted in the 1980s and ’90s, which critics say have disproportionately affected poor people and people of color.
It would explicitly authorize district attorneys to divert people away from criminal sanctions. It would narrow the mandatory minimum sentence for dealing drugs in a school zone so that it applies only when a dealer has a gun, is selling to minors, or in certain other circumstances. And it would repeal other mandatory minimums, including the one-year sentence for the first offense of dealing cocaine.
It would also shift how the state handles some children who break the law.
The legislation would remove juvenile court jurisdiction over children aged 7 through 11 years old, so children that age would no longer face any criminal sanctions, even for murder. For example, in the extremely rare instance of an 11-year-old shooting someone, he or she could not be charged in court. But the Department of Children and Families could still get involved.
Its signing drew dozens of advocates, lawmakers, and law enforcement officials to the State House for the ceremony, which took on a celebratory air before Baker signed it.
“This is a landmark law,” said Attorney General Maura Healey. “This is about putting justice in our criminal justice system.”