Senate candidates address evolving views during criminal justice forum

Kennedy joins Markey in supporting end to life without parole

SEN. ED MARKEY and Rep. Joe Kennedy III showed a few distinct differences in how they approach a major concern of the day — how do you reform a broken criminal justice system? And who gets to have a say? While both lean heavily toward making life easier for prisoners, their visions – and track records — are not identical.

That became apparent during a forum on criminal justice Tuesday night, which drew questions from current and former prisoners and was moderated by Andrea James, the formerly incarcerated founder of the advocacy group Families for Justice as Healing.

The issue of incarceration and racial justice in prisons has again become part of national debate following months of protests spurred by the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis police custody.

For the first time, Kennedy came out in favor of ending life sentences without the possibility of parole, addressing Leslie Credle, a mother who was in prison when her 22-year-old daughter was killed due to gun violence.

“This one, candidly, has been one that I’ve had to wrestle with. A man who shot a member of my own family is still incarcerated,” Kennedy said emotionally. “But he was given an option for parole,” he continued, in reference to Sirhan Sirhan, who was convicted for the assassination of his grandfather, Robert Kennedy, in 1968. Sirhan’s appeals for parole have been rejected, as recently as 2016.

“Ma’am, I’ve thought about this a lot of late,” Kennedy said slowly. “I recently came out in favor of ending life without parole sentences for everybody,”

He stressed the importance of making sure victims’ families’ concerns are accounted for in parole hearings. Markey is also a supporter of ending life without parole policies.

Both Kennedy and Markey said they support driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and free phone calls for prisoners, an issue currently before the Legislature. Both candidates said they want to keep the parents of children out of prison with alternative sentences and programming. Both support an end to solitary confinement and decriminalizing sex work. Both oppose the building of a new $50 million prison to house women from MCI-Framingham.

Sponsored by Suffolk University, the WGBH Forum Network, and the advocacy group Justice Reform Coalition, the format had Kennedy and Markey separately answering questions over the course of an hour. It was the first forum of its kind to be organized by individuals who know the justice system first-hand.

Both went into the night having to address longstanding complaints from prison advocates.

Kennedy responded to criticisms over his hiring of a sheriff to advise on criminal justice reform, his past employment as a prosecutor, his changing views on cannabis law, and his backing of candidates opposing progressives. Markey addressed this week’s criticism from a father whose son was killed by police officers, and his 1990s-era vote on a bill that increased the incarceration of black men.

On how he fits into the reform discussion as a former prosecutor, Kennedy struck a similar tune as when he spoke to prisoners at Suffolk County House of Correction, saying he has helped people struggling with addiction and mental illness. “I saw every single day the compounding impacts of poverty, of mental behavioral health,” he said, touting his sponsoring of bills that would improve mental health funding in communities of color. Kennedy spent two years working for Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe, a Republican, as an assistant district attorney before moving on to the Middlesex District Attorney’s office.

Kennedy said sheriffs have told him that 80 to 90 percent of incarcerated individuals suffer from substance abuse and mental health disorders. The issue of sheriffs giving him advice came up again when he defended hiring Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins to counsel him on race and criminal justice reform. “His perspective is valuable, and he’s not the only perspective I look to,” Kennedy said to a question criticizing the move.

A member of the virtual audience asked Kennedy how he can consider himself as part of the “urgent need for change” when he didn’t back progressive candidates such as Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, state Rep. Nika Elugardo of Jamaica Plain, and US Rep. Ayanna Pressley, and instead supported their “status quo” incumbent opponents. Kennedy noted that Markey hadn’t backed (he actually remained neutral) in those races. In choosing his mentor, former representative Michael Capuano, over Pressley, Kennedy said he made a “very tough choice” but never doubted Pressley’s abilities as a legislator. He didn’t address the other two races.

Kennedy also explained his January 2020 reversal on cannabis legalization after a long history of opposition, including opposing a state ballot initiative to legalize marijuana  and voting against efforts to give veterans access to medical marijuana. He recently co-sponsored the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which would remove marijuana from a 1970 federal law, thus decriminalizing the substance and enabling states to set their own policies.

He attributed his change of heart to the fallout from the war on drugs and “a disparate impact on communities of color, and that needs to be addressed.”

The father of Danroy “DJ” Henry Jr., a young man killed in 2010 by police in upstate New York, released a video on Twitter Monday in which he accused Markey of failing to help him and his wife pursue justice for their son’s death.

“We simply asked you the same thing we asked the other elected officials in the state of Massachusetts and in New York at the time, but unfortunately Ed, senator, you were the only one who didn’t act,” Henry said. “Not only did you not act — in any way — but we felt like you were just dismissing us, using even the term ‘colored’ in the conversation.”

Markey issued an apology to the family on Monday and at Tuesday’s event said he supports the Easton family’s efforts to reopen the investigation into Henry’s killing. He  joined the rest of the congressional delegation in calling on the Justice Department in 2014 to initiate a federal probe. “I am completely at your disposal,” said Markey.

Markey has sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr asking him to take “immediate action to conduct a renewed, thorough, and transparent investigation” into the death of Henry. Markey’s remarks Tuesday night were nearly verbatim the statement his press office sent out a few hours after the Henry video was posted.

Henry’s family has endorsed Kennedy.

Markey was also asked to explain his yes vote as a congressman on a 1994 crime bill that increased the punishments for drug offenses and mandated life sentences for criminals convicted of a violent felony after two or more prior convictions. Prison advocates have long attributed the increase of black and brown men behind bars to the law. Kennedy has knocked Markey for  his vote for “mass incarceration” over the course of the campaign.

Markey said the entire Massachusetts delegation, including Kennedy’s great uncle, then-senator Ted Kennedy, voted the same way on the bill because it included a violence against women provision that had never existed before, along with a ban on assault weapons.

“But yes, without question, those sentencing provisions were wrong. We owe an apology to African-American young men because of the over-incarceration that occurred,” he said.

Markey pointed out that he has co-sponsored New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s Next Step Act, which reforms policies for solitary confinement, lowers mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, and automatically expunges the records of those convicted on charges of marijuana use and possession. It would also reinstate the right to vote in federal elections for formerly incarcerated individuals.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Markey mentioned his support for prisoner voting rights in response to a question from Derrick Washington, a lifer at Souza-Baranowski state prison who asked the senator to support voting rights for those who have a life sentence without parole. “Without suffrage, we have suffering,” said Washington, who mentioned concerns about being locked into solitary-like conditions for over 23 hours a day during COVID-19. “Voting would be a way to knock that behavior out,” he said.

Markey called the law keeping current and former prisoners with felony charges from voting “racist” and a “disenfranchisement,” adding that it results in 6.1 million people being unable to vote.