New Massachusetts licensing law aims to clear re-entry path for drug offenders

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BOSTON — Shortly after 11 a.m. Wednesday, thousands of Massachusetts drug offenders became eligible to have their driver's licenses reinstated as Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill repealing automatic license suspensions for most drug crimes not related to the operation of a motor vehicle.

Baker was flanked by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, law enforcement officials and advocates as he took what he described as a "small but hugely important step" toward bringing down recidivism rates and smoothing the transition for offenders leaving the justice system.

"The one thing I think has become clear, especially to those of us who try to pay attention to the data, is that one of the big problems we face in criminal justice is re-entry. The ability for people who made a mistake, who paid their dues, to find their way back into productive life with purpose," Baker said. "The lack of a license, the lack of a driver's license should be obvious to everybody is a huge impediment to somebody's ability to find work and find purpose."

The near-total repeal of a 1989 law that critics have called a remnant of the War on Drugs that has prevented ex-offenders from successfully reintegrating into society marks a major step for criminal justice reform in Massachusetts, supporters of the bill (S 2021) said.

The bill also waives the $500 reinstatement fee for those who had licenses suspended under the old law. The legislation had bipartisan support, and the final bill was unanimously endorsed in both branches.

The repeal does not apply to offenses of driving under the influence of drugs and the bill includes a provision under which traffickers of hard drugs would have their licenses automatically repealed, though those released from prison after less than five years could apply for a hardship license.

Most parts of the bill took effect at 11:08 a.m., when Baker signed the bill into law. But sections of the law that call for the registrar of motor vehicles to "shield from public access all records of the suspension and the underlying offense, including records of the expiration of the suspension, any hearings or appeals related to the suspension and the reinstatement following the suspension" will take effect in six months, according to the governor's office.

Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler, who sponsored the bill that was passed by the Senate in September, said that 7,000 people lost their licenses every year under the old law and many could not find a job to pay the $500 fee without having a license to get to that job.

"These are people that cannot get jobs, they cannot do the things that we take for granted. They can't even get to doctors appointments because they have no transportation," Chandler said. "They did the crime, they paid their time and now they are going to rejoin society with some of the tools that are really important."

Worcester resident Benito Vega said that he was ordered to pay more than $700 to get his license back a few years ago, and saving up to pay the fine took months because he could not get a steady job without having a license.

"It was a catch-22, I was stuck," he said. "If you don't have a license you can't get the job and you can't get your license back if you don't have a job to pay for it."

Vega, who now works as state coordinator for the Vincentian Re-Entry Organizing Project, said Wednesday's bill signing signifies the elimination of an obstacle to successful re-entry for offenders who have already paid their debt to society.

"By passing this bill, being an ex-offender myself, it's great to see that we're also creating opportunities for those who want to re-enter, who want to be successful, who want to get a sustainable job and have transportation to get to it," Vega said. "To me, it's just a great victory to be able to see another barrier being demolished for individuals wanting to re-enter and be productive."

The first person to have a license reinstated without a fee waited for the bill to become law Wednesday morning at the Braintree branch of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, according to the Department of Transportation.

That first fee-free license reinstatement was completed at the Braintree branch at 11:39 a.m., MassDOT said.

Jobs Not Jails, a statewide coalition focused on redirecting prison spending towards jobs, training and support for Massachusetts' lowest income communities, praised the bill signing and said the 1989 law was a "relic from the War on Drugs that has backfired by imposing restrictions on ex-prisoners getting jobs and traveling to jobs, which has led to hardships after they did their time and inevitably contributed to recidivism."

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg thanked Chandler for "laboring in the vineyard on this for a long time" and said the new law is "a milestone and a really large step forward" in criminal justice reform efforts.

Rosenberg said he, Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and a few legislators met earlier this week with the Council of State Government's Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which is working with lawmakers to explore reform opportunities.

"The group is working very hard at analyzing the data that we have amassed here in Massachusetts to understand the policies and the practices in our criminal justice system and what the outcomes are as a result of those policies," Rosenberg said.

Baker said he is excited by the possibilities that could come from working with the outside researchers and is eager to see the group's report on the criminal justice system and hear its recommendations.

"They are terrific and one of the great things about working with an organization that's done business in 34 states is not only do they have some idea about what might work, they actually have a ton of information about what has worked, and by the way also what hasn't," the governor said. "Their ability to find meaning in a lot of the information that is floating around in a whole bunch of different places in state government is pretty impressive."

Andy Metzger contributed to this report.


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