Massachusetts House hopes license bill will create path for drug offenders

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BOSTON >> Most drug offenders sent to jail in Massachusetts would no longer face automatic driver's license suspensions under compromise legislation unanimously approved by the House on Tuesday and intended to repeal a vestige from the war on drugs.

The House voted 156-0 in support of a bill negotiated with the Senate that supporters say will make it easier for those convicted of drug offenses that had nothing to do with the operation of a motor vehicle to hold a job after they have served their sentences.

The Senate is expected to take up the conference bill on Thursday, and Gov. Charlie Baker has said that he supports the legislation in concept, but would first want to review the details before committing to signing it into law.

Rep. William Straus, who led the negotiations for the House, explained during brief floor debate that those whose licenses have been suspended under the current law would have their licenses reinstated and the "onerous" $500 fee an offender must pay to have their license reinstated will also be waived.

"At the time, it was thought it would help if driver's licenses were suspended for anyone convicted of a drug offense. Over time, we've come to understand it's much more complicated than that," Straus said.

The conference report includes a provision similar to one supported by members of the House Republican caucus that would allow for automatic license suspensions of up to five years for those convicted of trafficking crimes for drugs aside from marijuana.

Straus said that there could be a small group of people convicted of trafficking crimes released after serving less than five years, the standard duration for which a driver's license is valid. For those individuals, the bill would allow offenders to appeal to the Registry of Motor Vehicle for a hardship license.

"There is a relief valve, a safety valve if you will, for everyone who could be affected by this law," Straus said.

Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, a proponent of the reform, said repealing the automatic licenses suspensions "removes a significant barrier to successful re-entry for thousands of individuals across the Commonwealth."

"Adoption of this legislation provides those men and women impacted with greater access to job opportunities and substance abuse treatment, both of which are key ingredients to reducing recidivism and keeping our communities safe. It also allows them to more fully participate in the lives of their family, including driving children, spouses and elderly parents to medical appointments," Koutoujian said in a statement.

The final bill was negotiated by Reps. Straus, John Fernandes and Brad Hill and Sens. Thomas McGee, Harriette Chandler and Bruce Tarr.


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