Bishops press Beacon Hill for criminal justice reform
Catholic leaders urge end to mandatory minimum drug sentences, other changes
THE STATE’S FOUR Catholic bishops are adding their voices to those calling for the Legislature to take up a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill when lawmakers reconvene for a new session next month.
In a letter sent last week to state leaders, the bishops urged adoption of “comprehensive thoughtful reforms” that can “reduce recidivism and incarceration rates for offenders (particularly non-violent offenders) and provide the path for many of them to be productive members of our society.”
The letter — from Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield, and Bishop Edgar da Cunha of Fall River — calls for repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, a top priority for reform advocates.
The letter calls for greater use of diversion programs that provide treatment, rather than incarceration, for those suffering from substance abuse addiction and for more funding of drug treatment and mental health services for prisoners as well expanded education and job training programs for inmates.
“It’s a real social justice issue, which is important to the bishops,” said James Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy office serving the state’s four dioceses, which issued the letter on their behalf.
The letter went to Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, and Chief Justice Ralph Gants, the four key players in an ongoing review of criminal justice policies that is expected to lead to legislation being filed next month when the lawmakers reconvene for a new two-year session.
For more than a year, the state has been engaged in a review of criminal justice policies being led by the Council of State Governments. The council and the Pew Charitable Trusts have provided assistance to more than two dozen states taking part in a Department of Justice-sponsored effort dubbed the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The project aims to help states cut corrections costs and reduce recidivism by examining their criminal justice policies and recommending changes using evidence-based best practices across the country.
Reform advocates have expressed increasing concern that the recommendations — and subsequent legislation — will focus narrowly on probation, parole, and other issues following an inmate’s release and will not take up changes to sentencing policies that would lower incarceration rates.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Lew Finfer, executive director of Massachusetts Communities Action Network, a statewide network of faith-based community groups. “It can’t be comprehensive if you just deal with probation and parole. Sentencing greatly affects how many people go to prison and how long they go to prison for, and going to prison greatly affects your chances of recidivating.”
Gants, the Supreme Judicial Court chief justice, has been an outspoken advocate of a more sweeping criminal justice reform agenda, including elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. But even he seems resigned to a more narrowly-focused bill emerging as the consensus compromise on Beacon Hill.
Speaking after his annual address in October on the state of the judiciary, Gants said he was encouraged by progress on the policy review but acknowledged that the proposal that emerges is likely to focus less on sentencing reforms than on the “back end” of the criminal justice system when inmates are released.
As with this week’s rally, the bishops’ letter is an effort to try to influence the legislation before it is finalized, said Driscoll, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference director. “We felt before the legislation is written, or as it’s being written, we wanted to point out a few areas we hope the Legislature focuses on,” he said.
Apart from their longstanding opposition to the death penalty, the state’s bishops have rarely taken public positions on criminal justice issues.
“We’re very pleased about it,” Finfer said of the bishops’ letter. “There are a lot of moral and faith concerns about this. We hope their moral voice will be listened to by legislators.”
Rev. Frank Cloherty, senior priest at Sacred Heart Parish in Lynn and longtime advocate for criminal justice reform, was instrumental in getting the bishops to weigh in.
“I’m all for charity,” he said. “I’m also for justice. To me, you’ve got to have both. How do we create a safer and healthier society, and a more just society.”