The legislative session just ended. Here's what happened.
The 2017-2018 legislative session ended on July 31, 2018. Here is a round-up from Gavi Wolfe, legislative director for the ACLU of Massachusetts, explaining what we have accomplished this session and what lies ahead:
In the face of unprecedented threats to civil rights and civil liberties from Washington, DC, the ACLU of Massachusetts knew this legislative session wouldn’t be business as usual. States play a key role in ensuring freedom in times of national crises. That’s why – at a moment in history marked by relentless federal attacks on reproductive freedom, immigrants’ rights, open government, free press, and democracy itself – we set out to protect people whose rights are most threatened by proposed changes to federal law.
This legislative session, we committed ourselves to a Massachusetts Freedom Agenda to strengthen existing protections and move freedom forward here in the Commonwealth. Bolstered by our supporters, volunteers, and community partners, we’re proud to celebrate a number of historic state legislative victories this year.
We are deeply appreciative of legislative leaders in the Massachusetts House and Senate who recognized the need to defend civil rights and liberties, and who have worked hard to make bold changes to Massachusetts systems, laws, and policies for the better. There is always more work to be done on many fronts, and we look forward to partnering with our allies in advocacy and with leaders on Beacon Hill to continue to make the Commonwealth a more equal, just, safe and free place for all its residents.
In the face of a White House hell-bent on interfering with women’s personal health care choices, the ACLU of Massachusetts doubled down on our commitment to reproductive freedom. This session, we’re celebrating many victories that safeguard the right to make the most fundamental decisions about our bodies, our families, and our lives, no matter what happens federally.
First, we stood up for pregnant employees by advocating for the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. In our testimony, we said it loud and clear: Women should never be penalized at work for making the choice to have a family. The new law, signed last summer, assures that women won't be forced to choose between a healthy pregnancy and keeping their jobs.
Because people should never have to choose between the family they love and the job they need, we joined in the powerful coalition effort that transformed Massachusetts into a national leader in providing paid family and medical leave. This landmark ACLU-backed legislation will make a critical difference in achieving economic equality for women and security for all hardworking Bay Staters.
Finally, we fought for – and won! – a trifecta of victories improving safe, confidential, and legally guaranteed access to essential reproductive health care for all. When the Trump administration announced its executive order to block birth control access, we pushed Massachusetts leaders to quickly pass the ACCESS Act to protect and expand contraceptive access for people throughout the Commonwealth. But we recognize that a right to health care on paper – without a guarantee of confidentiality – may not mean a lot to a young person on their parents’ heath plan. So, we changed the law to protect patient privacy and turn the promise of health access into a reality. And later, when President Trump promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, we urged Beacon Hill to swiftly repeal an archaic, unconstitutional abortion ban still moldering on the books in Massachusetts – and they did! Together with the Coalition for Choice and allies, the ACLU of Massachusetts led advocacy efforts for these victories to ensure that – no matter what happens in Washington, D.C. – reproductive freedom in Massachusetts is unequivocally protected.
Criminal Law Reform
For decades, the ACLU of Massachusetts has been on the frontlines of meaningful criminal law reform. After years of hard work by Massachusetts leaders and advocates alike, we were thrilled when the Legislature passed sweeping criminal justice reform earlier this year.
There’s a lot to celebrate about the legislation. As a key player in a broad coalition of advocates, the ACLU fought for and won important sentencing reforms, like eliminating several mandatory minimum sentences, providing alternative sentencing for parents and primary caretakers, and raising the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction. We also achieved critical protections for people incarcerated in Massachusetts, including restrictions on the use of solitary confinement, guaranteed access to in-person visitation, and a mechanism to enable compassionate medical release of people who would otherwise die behind bars. This far-reaching legislation represents a critical step toward a fairer, safer, and more just Massachusetts.
In addition to improving our criminal laws, the ACLU of Massachusetts is committed to shifting drug policy from punishment to prevention and treatment. As such, we are thrilled that the opioid bill passed on the last day of the legislative session takes important steps in the right direction. In particular, we are proud that the Legislature has begun to more fully embrace access to medication-assisted treatment for people who are incarcerated in the Commonwealth, and backed away from the idea of locking people up to coerce them into treatment.
In every legislative session, we will remain committed to working together for even stronger reforms to reinvest in public health and human needs, end our reliance on incarceration, and eliminate racial disparities in the system.
Democracy & Open Government
The ACLU of Massachusetts has long worked to fully engage eligible voters and make voting as simple and accessible as possible. While voter suppression is on the rise nationally, we’re proud that Massachusetts is leading the way by expanding ballot access and modernizing how our voter registration system works. This session, we helped make the Commonwealth the 14th state to adopt automatic voter registration. As a result, we now have the chance to engage nearly 700,000 more Bay Staters in the democratic process.
Voting is one key way to hold government accountable and build a healthy and strong democracy; requiring government transparency is another. That’s why we proudly pushed for and won critical open government protections in two areas related to criminal justice.
The ACLU of Massachusetts introduced one bill to require the collection and publication of more comprehensive arrest data in Massachusetts, and another to increase transparency and reporting about police use of civil asset forfeiture. We are so glad that both these measures were ultimately passed as part of the criminal justice reform overhaul. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, so good data is a necessary first step in improving police practices and addressing racial disparities in the criminal legal system.
So much good has come out of this session. But the hard work doesn’t stop here.
At a time when the Trump administration is detaining and deporting as many immigrants as possible with no regard for civil rights and family unity, the ACLU of Massachusetts championed the Safe Communities Act to protect the rights of immigrants here in our Commonwealth. We also fought for a budget amendment that would have put in place basic legal safeguards against deportation and family separation for hardworking immigrants in our communities.
Unfortunately, throughout the legislative session, Governor Baker shamefully opposed immigrants’ rights and chose politics over people’s lives, casting a long shadow over the legislative process. In the end, the Senate passed important protections, but the House did not.
To say that we are disappointed is an understatement. By failing to pass the Safe Communities Act, and later failing to pass even more basic protections for immigrants, Beacon Hill abdicated its responsibility to defend immigrants and make everyone in Massachusetts safer. Make no mistake: this decision means President Trump’s mass deportation agenda can now continue here in Massachusetts.
We aren’t giving up. We will fight on, both in Massachusetts’ cities and towns and in the next legislative session.
Though much remains to be done, this is a moment to savor and celebrate – and to thank our supporters and friends for their hard work, too. At the ACLU of Massachusetts, we know that freedom doesn’t protect itself. So, in the days after the end of formal sessions, we cheer our victories and rededicate ourselves to fighting for the future.