Activists interrupt criminal justice meeting
Advocates worried reform bill won’t address sentencing issues
CHANTING “JOBS NOT JAIL,” advocates for criminal justice reform briefly disrupted the final meeting of a state criminal justice policy commission today, part of a growing chorus of voices expressing concern that state leaders are preparing to put forward legislation that won’t include major changes to sentencing laws.
The protest came as advocates and lawmakers gear up for what could be one of the most high-profile debates of the coming legislative session.
A state commission, aided by researchers from the nonprofit Council of State Governments, has been meeting for more than a year to develop recommendations to serve as the basis for criminal justice legislation that is expected to be filed next month at the start of the Legislature’s new session. But advocates are concerned that legislation will be limited to reform of probation and parole procedures and will not tackle mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders or other policies that affect how many people enter the criminal justice system or the length of sentences they receive.
“They’re focusing so much on the back end. They’re not talking about he fact that people are going to jail in such large numbers,” Calvin Feliciano, an activist with Jobs Not Jails coalition, told reporters outside the commission hearing. Feliciano, a union official with SEIU Local 509 who spent two years confined to the Department of Youth Services as a teenager, led the protest by several dozen advocates, who stood up and chanted during the meeting, urging the commission to broaden its review.
State Rep. Russell Holmes, chairman of the black and Latino lawmakers’ caucus, said he and other members of the group met yesterday with House Speaker Robert DeLeo and House Judiciary Committee chairman John Fernandes to share their concerns. Holmes said they raised the issue of ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and addressing racial disparities in criminal justice policies.
Holmes said DeLeo offered no commitments on mandatory minimum drug sentences but didn’t seem to close the door to further discussion. ”He said certainly that would be something he would expect us to continue the conversations with,” said Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat.
The state review was launched last year by Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants. A joint letter from the four leaders to the Council of State Governments committed the Commonwealth to an evidence-based review of criminal justice policies with the goal of arriving at consensus on legislation to reduce corrections and lower recidivism.
Today’s final meeting of the commission included a report on race issues in the criminal justice system and an overview of areas that the research team says are ripe for consideration as part of reform legislation, based on the direction provided by state leaders at the outset.
“Our work has been defined by our charge,” said Paula Carey, co-chair of the commission and the chief justice of Trial Court.
That charge from the four state leaders, who make-up the commission’s steering committee, was centered on issues facing offenders when released from incarceration.
The policy recommendations presented on Wednesday focused on post-release supervision and on services for ex-inmates such as substance abuse treatment or mental health counseling that might reduce their risk of returning to prison.
Reform advocates say they’ll press to add things to a bill if the legislation that’s filed comes up short of their goals. “A lot of us are going to be throwing a lot of things at this bill,” said Holmes. “The Speaker said he fully expects that to happen.”But Rushing, a Boston Democrat, said it’s important to push for changes now to broaden the recommendations before the commission issues a final report. “I think our jobs is go back to the people who signed the original letter,” he said of the four state leaders overseeing the policy review. “I think it’s very difficult to add on and enhance something that comes from a commission that supposedly has taken a deeper look at all of this.”