- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 15, 2016

BOSTON (AP) - House and Senate negotiators announced agreement Tuesday on a bill that would end the state’s long-standing policy of automatically suspending for up to five years the driver’s licenses of people convicted of drug offenses.

The law was born out of a 1980s-era get-tough approach to illegal drugs and was applied to drug crimes regardless of whether they involved driving.

A six-member conference committee had been working to resolve differences between House and Senate versions of the legislation.

The compromise bill, which must still be approved by the full House and Senate, also repeals a $500 reinstatement fee that convicted drug offenders had to pay when they finally did get their licenses back.

The legislation “ends the practice of automatic license suspension for routine drug offenders - a policy which law enforcement and public interest groups roundly criticized as a major contributor to high recidivism rates,” said Rep. Williams Straus, a Mattappoisett Democrat, in a statement. Straus co-chairs the Legislature’s Transportation Committee and was the lead House negotiator on the bill.

Backers of the effort argued that the automatic driver’s license suspensions only served to make it harder for people who had completed their sentences to obtain employment and provide for their families, thereby increasing chances they would commit new crimes later.

The bill would continue to allow license suspensions of up to five years for people convicted of more serious drug trafficking crimes that involve cocaine, heroin, fentanyl and other opiates. Those offenders, however, could appeal to the Registrar of Motor Vehicles for earlier reinstatement for hardship reasons.

Judges could also continue to suspend driver’s licenses in cases that involve driving under the influence of narcotics.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker hasn’t committed to signing the bill if it reaches his desk but has indicated that he agrees at least in concept with the proposal.

Among those strongly backing the legislation is Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey.

“This outdated state law is an unnecessary barrier and burden for thousands in this state trying to rebuild their lives and stay out of the criminal justice system,” Healey said after the House passed its version of the bill in January.

Law enforcement groups including the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association and the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association have also announced support for repealing the automatic suspensions.

More than 30 other states have taken similar steps.

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