Legislators call for broader criminal justice reform
State needs to seize the opportunity for change, say lawmakers
LAWMAKERS GATHERED OUTSIDE the House chamber Tuesday to declare their commitment to wide-ranging criminal justice reforms, further evidence of a push on Beacon Hill for changes that go beyond a consensus bill rolled out by Gov. Charlie Baker in February.
“We are all here united today because we believe that this session is an opportunity for comprehensive criminal justice reform,” said Rep. Byron Rushing, the House assistant majority leader.
In February, Baker unveiled legislation that was the culmination of more than a year of work by the nonpartisan Council of State Governments, whose policy experts were invited by state leaders to help craft a plan to address criminal justice reform issues.
Critics have said the bill is limited because it only focuses on prisoner release and reentry into the community, ignoring big issues related to sentencing policy, bail practices, and other factors that determine who gets incarcerated and for how long. The Baker legislation would beef up services for inmates being released, and it would more inmates, including some of those serving mandatory minimum drug sentences, to earn “good time” credits that reduce their sentence by taking part in prison programming.
However, Rosenberg and Gants have both voiced support for reforms that go beyond the bill. DeLeo and Baker have held back any commitment to further measures. DeLeo, in particular, will be the crucial player going forward, given the Democratic super-majorities in both legislative branches.
About a dozen House members were joined at Tuesday’s event by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz. They represented four Beacon Hill legislative caucuses: the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus; the House Progressive Caucus; the Caucus of Women Legislators; and the Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus.
Gathered in support of the legislators were activists with several organizations backing criminal justice reform, including the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and the Massachusetts Communities Action Network.
The lawmakers say they support a broad set of reforms, including elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offences, bail reform, and a commitment to more services to inmates while they are behind bars. They also said the state needs to collect better data on race and ethnicity in the criminal justice system.
“Decades of racially biased sentencing policies have had an overwhelming and irrefutable impact on the communities that we represent,” said Chang-Diaz, a Democrat from Jamaica Plain.
She said blacks and Latinos make up less than one-fifth of the state population, but account for more than half of those incarcerated. She said they account for about half of those convicted of drug crimes that don’t carry mandatory minimum sentences, but 75 percent of those convicted of drug crimes with mandatory minimums.
Chang-Diaz said it is imperative to look at sentencing issues and not just policies affecting those in prison or being released. “Sentencing policy defines the system, and it determines much of the human and financial cost for every subsequent phase of the system,” she said.
She said getting rid of some mandatory minimum sentences, in which judges cannot sentence defendants to anything less than a predetermined minimum, needs to be part of that effort. “Policies that tie the hands of our judges, that drain the Commonwealth’s coffers, and that produce no measurable benefits to public safety have no place in a modern justice system,” she said.
Rushing, the fourth ranking member of the House, pushed back against any idea that the gathering was prompted by concern that other House leaders may be reluctant to take up more sweeping reforms.
“Just the opposite,” he said. “We’re holding this rally so that all of our colleagues who don’t belong to our caucuses understand how much support there is for this work in this session.”
DeLeo, speaking with reporters Tuesday morning, said he knows there is interest among legislators in going further than the bill released in February, which he called “a great start.”
“I fully expect that there are going to be other pieces of legislation that we are going to be dealing with to supplement what we will be doing,” he said. “I’m not sure exactly where it will go.”
Rep. Russell Holmes, the outgoing chairman of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, said after today’s press conference that he is eager to see broader legislation taken up this session.“We keep hearing, ‘let’s wait,’” he said. “For many that are black and Latino, wait many times turns to never. We’ve been asking for things for three, four, five, 10 years. We want to make sure we incorporate those things as well.”
Asked what he thought the appetite was in the House for more sweeping reforms, Holmes said, “The appetite ends and begins typically with the Speaker, so we need to push him to make sure that we get something broader.”