- Associated Press - Monday, November 13, 2017

BOSTON (AP) - Debate began Monday in the Massachusetts House on a massive criminal justice bill that backers said would make the state a safer place while offering more people the opportunity to turn their lives around after committing crimes.

The 89-page bill , which House Judiciary Committee chairwoman Claire Cronin called “smart on crime and fiscally sound,” would among many other things eliminate some mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders; limit the use of solitary confinement in state prisons; allow some past crimes to be shielded from criminal background checks conducted by prospective employers; and, for the first time, allow some convictions to be expunged completely from an individual’s record.

“This legislation addresses criminal justice from the earliest point that an individual first makes contact with the system, sometimes as children, up to the point that they re-enter society after incarceration,” said Cronin, a Democrat from Easton.

The measure also toughens some criminal laws, stiffening penalties for habitual drunken drivers and people who traffic in the deadly synthetic opioids fentanyl and carfentanil.

The House was expected to sift through some 200 proposed amendments before taking a final vote, perhaps Tuesday. The Legislature is scheduled to begin a recess on Wednesday and will not resume formal sessions until January.

The Senate approved its own version of a criminal justice overhaul on a 33-6 vote last month, meaning the two bills would have to be reconciled before a final version is sent to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.

Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, a Boston Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, said the legislation tries to tackle the racial and economic disparities associated with crime and punishment.

Blacks and Latinos make up about 20 percent of the state’s overall population, he said, but more than half of the state’s prison population.

“This bill reforms the criminal justice system so that if people want to change their lives they are going to be able to,” said Sanchez.

Key differences between the House and Senate bills include the treatment of juvenile offenders. The Senate bill would raise from age 7 to age 12 the minimum age for criminal responsibility and from 18 to 19 the age at which juvenile court jurisdiction ends.

The minimum age for criminal responsibility would be age 10 under the House bill, which would also keep at 18 the age at which an individual enters adult court.

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