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LOCAL NEWS --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
House: Decriminalize prostitution, drugs
by Elisabeth J. Beardsley Friday, April 11, 2003
Pot smokers, hookers, shoplifters and barroom brawlers could be eligible for jail-free punishments equivalent to a traffic ticket under a budget recommendation by House lawmakers.
The proposal would allow low-level misdemeanors to be treated as civil rather than criminal infractions - allowing the state to forgo public defenders, which could save $2.2 million per year.
That would allow lawmakers to avoid Gov. Mitt Romney's proposal to shutter eight district courts, said House Criminal Justice Chairman Eugene L. O'Flaherty, who chaired the judiciary task force.
``In trying times, we have to be as creative as possible,'' O'Flaherty (D-Chelsea) said.
The House offered a similar decriminalization proposal in last year's budget, but former acting Gov. Jane M. Swift vetoed it after an outcry by the state's district attorneys.
Prosecutors say they're willing to decriminalize certain offenses such as shoplifting or driving without a license - but not ``quality of life'' crimes such as drugs and prostitution.
``We would be opposed to the blanket decriminalization of statutes that would have a significant impact on the quality of life of neighborhoods,'' said Suffolk Second Assistant DA Gerald Stewart.
Romney yesterday quickly threatened a veto if the proposal finds its way into the Legislature's upcoming budget plan - especially after the House panel rejected virtually all of Romney's court reforms.
But drug reform activists hailed the move, saying that cracking down on petty drug offenses wastes scarce public dollars at a time when budget cuts are forcing police to be laid off statewide.
``We can continue to address adult marijuana smokers, but if we do that, by definition, we'll have less police on the streets, less DAs in the prosecutor's office, more people who are homeless,'' said Michael Cutler of the Massachusetts Drug Policy Forum.
Calling Romney's anti-patronage approach to the courts a ``false premise,'' the House panel rejected his plan to merge the Boston Municipal Court into the larger system and take control of individual court budgets away from lawmakers.
Romney spokeswoman Shawn Feddeman retorted: ``Citizens and common sense are crying out for reform, but the Legislature just wants to go back to higher taxes and unacceptable spending cuts.''
The House also recommended ratcheting up dozens of court fees - raising an estimated $37.7 million.
The House's methodical rejection of Romney's proposals sparked accusations that House leaders are trying to stampede members into supporting new taxes with threats of devastating program cuts.
``Their budget is slash, burn, blood in the streets . . . and hope the public says oh, that's unacceptable, we'll have to raise additional revenues,'' said House Minority Leader Bradley H. Jones (R-North Reading).