The Massachusetts criminal justice system would eliminate many mandatory minimum sentence for low-level drug offenders but crack down on professional dealers of deadly opiate compounds under a new plan to be taken up by the state House of Representatives next week.

The House's version of sweeping legislation to change how the state deals with criminals was heralded by Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez as being more focused on helping those in the system improve their lives.

"The House is moving in a very progressive manner and looking at stepping away from broad based policy in criminal justice to a system that is focused on individuals and the challenges that they have in their lives," Sanchez said.

The House's plan resembles one already passed by the Senate. Like the Senate plan, the House would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses, but the bill released Monday stops short of relaxing sentences for drug traffickers or for crimes involving minors.

"Traffickers, it's not every day that people get charged with trafficking," Rep. Evandro Carvalho a former prosectutor said Monday.

There are differences between the chambers on how to treat younger offenders and a myriad of other policy changes that make up the justice overhaul efforts. House leaders expect to take up and pass their bill early next week, setting up a conference committee to reconcile the two versions just before lawmakers recess for the year on Nov. 15.

The House also allows offenders to seal criminal records sooner, but does not increase the age of criminality to 19 as the Senate did. The House's plan raises the minimum age jurisdiction of the juvenile court from seven to 10 years old and would create task forces to further study how gender, trauma and drug diversion programs affect young offenders.

One area the House is offering policy changes that weren't included in the Senate's bill is by creating a system to expunge certain juvenile and criminal records for adults under 21 years old. The legislation would also permit courts to expunge records for crimes that have since been legalized, such as marijuana charges.

The bill would reduce the wait time to seal records for all offenders from ten years to seven for a felony and from five years to three years for a misdemeanor. 

Sanchez and DeLeo characterized the records provisions in the bill as a way to help offenders gain employment and housing by avoiding harsh consequences from having to declare records on applications.

The House's proposal does not include a provision featured in the Senate's bill that would extend the jurisdiction of the juvenile court to age 19, effectively including treating all 18 year old offenders as minors.

Carvalho has supported efforts to raise the age of criminality, but the Dorchester lawmaker said he's pleased with the bundle the House put forward today, including the new expungement system.
"The fact that there's expungement, that you have the ability as a juvenile - especially going backwards, retroactive, - that's important," Carvalho said.

Carvalho said he will review the legislation and decide whether to file an amendment to raise the age of criminality to 19 as in the Senate bill, or to accept expungement as another way to aid young offenders.

"On the flip side is expungement. Policy, you can't always be married to one idea only. How do we we get to a particular point?" Carvalho said.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo told reporters Monday that it was thanks to Judiciary Chairwoman Claire Cronin, Sanchez and advisor and former Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Roderick Ireland that the House's proposal took on some of the hot-button issues like mandatory sentences and expungement.

"I think there was a general sense out there that maybe the House would probably not address the issues that we did," DeLeo said.

"I’m not sure we’re going to satisfy everyone... I think there are going to be folks on both ends who are going to look for something stronger or are going to look for something weaker in whatever," DeLeo said. The Speaker expects members to offer amendments to the bill to shape the chamber's final legislation when debate begins Monday.

The House plan specifically cracks down on dealers of deadly opiates fentanyl and carfentanil.

DeLeo was especially concerned about the spread of fentanyl and carfentanil onto Massachusetts's streets. The bill would classify both drugs as Class A substances and add stiff penalties to trafficking.

DeLeo said he was astonished by just how deadly small amounts of the substances could be and that he decided there's no place in the state for the drugs.

"I hope that we can put as many of these folks who are selling this stuff, who are actually killing people away and keep them off the streets," DeLeo said. Under the bill, traffickers of 10 net grams of fentanyl would be punished with a new mandatory minimum sentence of three and a half months. Any amount of carfentanil would land a dealer in jail for between 3 and a half and 20 years.

 "That product is a killer. An immediate killer," Sanchez said of carfentanil.