Originally published for the Sun Chronicle on Feb. 5, 2016.
A bill that would repeal the mandatory suspension of convicted drug offenders’ driver’s licenses is in limbo after a House amendment, supported by an area legislator, put the legislation at odds with the Senate version.
The amendment, which would require license suspensions to continue for convicted drug traffickers, was pushed forward by Republican House leaders, who argued the initial goal of the legislation was to reduce hardships only on those convicted of minor drug crimes.
“Drug trafficking crimes are people very involved in the drug scene and making a great deal of money from it and victimizing people,” said Rep. Betty Poirier, D-North Attleboro, who is the second assistant minority leader within the House Republican leadership.
“Those are not the people we were trying to help. We were trying to help people who had very minor offenses.”
The Senate voted last fall to repeal a 1989 law that mandated suspension for any drug offense, ranging from simple possession to large-scale drug trafficking.
The law was passed under pressure by the federal government, which saw the law as a way to crack down on crime during the 1980s.
Over the past few years, Congress and state legislatures have started to reconsider the harsh sentencing laws developed in the 1980s and 1990s during the War on Drugs. Massachusetts is one of only 16 states that has not opted out of the 1989 legislation.
Advocates for the repeal argue the law created an unnecessary burden on people who had already served their time and created barriers for their successful reentry into society.
“In a state where 80 percent of workers commute to work by car, prohibiting people from driving can make it very difficult to find and retain employment and reduce rates of recidivism,” Attorney General Maura Healey told The Sun Chronicle in January.
About 40 percent of prisoners in Massachusetts return for another sentence within three years of their release.
Recidivism is often a result of instability in one’s life that leads a person back to of crime, advocates for the bill say.
“The current license suspension policy places a major burden on families and creates obstacles for people working to rebuild their lives and achieve stability,” Healey said. “A person whose license has been revoked can’t drive their children to school or daycare, take a family member to a doctor’s appointment, go grocery shopping or assist an elderly relative.”
The Senate bill would abolish these suspensions, which can last from one to five years, but would allow judges the option of suspending a driver’s license. The bill would affect about 7,000 Massachusetts residents convicted of drug offenses per year.
The House also voted to repeal the law in January, but added the amendment. The Senate refused to approve the amendment, and so the bill moves to a conference committee to resolve the differences in legislation.
Sen. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham, said he looks forward to addressing the language of the bill once it is out of conference committee, but did not elaborate his thoughts regarding the amendment.
Rep. Paul Heroux, D-Attleboro, co-sponsored the House legislation, but said he thought the amendment was “unnecessary.”
“Somebody who has served time in jail or prison for a drug crime has already served their sentence,” he said. “If we want to help them get back on their feet, to be a successful, pro-social member of society, we want to make sure there are as few barriers to reentry as possible.
“That Republican amendment acts as a barrier. I think it does kind of go against what the bill is trying to accomplish.”
But, Poirier said that after talking with other officials, the Republican leadership still believes the law should apply to “more serious crimes of a larger nature.”
“The drug enforcement communities, the courts, everyone involved felt like it was the right thing to do,” she said.
Although he said he would like to see the bill passed without the new provision, Heroux said he would still vote for the bill with the Republican amendment if it came down to it.
“I’ll take the victories where we can get them. That’s the spirit of how we compromise and do things up in the Legislature,” he said.