Legislative hearings have become mostly theater

Long waits, 3-minute speaking limits discourage participation

LAST WEEK WE JOINED 200 other Massachusetts residents for a hearing of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary. The hearing, set to cover sentencing, corrections, and criminal records, had a list of 60 bills under consideration. As is common practice, verbal testimony was limited to three minutes per person, with the committee chairs retaining the right to take people out of turn.

This, of course, is not unusual. The rationale is that with three minutes of testimony, all of the hundred or so people who wanted to testify would have their say. We have both been through this before and understand it is general operating procedure for our legislative process. But there was something so deeply flawed here that it forces us to question this approach to crafting legislation to guide the Commonwealth.

Aside from the length of the hearing, there was never a time when the entire committee was present and there were only 10 or so questions asked during the nearly eight hour process, as the chair effectively (if on occasion unevenly) enforced the strict three-minute rule. Those who testified were left to rush through their testimony or be cut off, with the promise of accepting printed versions, which was  little comfort after hours waiting. At one point, the hearing clock stopped, and those testifying were forced to depend on the watches of committee members. Whatever rules the committee was following remained mysterious to many of the people who had to miss work or, in some cases, travel across the state to testify.

Although there was some order to the day, there was absolutely no coherence to the hearing. Bills concerning the exorbitant cost of phone calls to prisoners and the abusive conditions visitors to prisons endured were mixed in with pleas from constables to retain their authority to make arrests. Indeed, there were so many topics it is impossible to recall them all. We assume the legislators and their staffs have some way of managing the input but one is left with a feeling that it is all just so much theater, a pro forma opportunity for members of the public to say a few (but not too many) words.

We were there to advocate for legislation that would eliminate life without the possibility of parole by requiring a parole hearing for any prisoner after 25 years. We, of course, thought this was the most important topic of the day, but we appreciate that everyone else testifying felt the same way. The net effect of the hearing, however, was to make all of us feel totally insignificant.

Both the randomness and incoherence of the hearing were made crystal clear when we were told—day of—that letters from some prisoners serving life without parole would be prohibited as verbal testimony. Granted, these men and women behind bars are not the only ones impacted by their crimes, but they deserve a voice in the room to express how they have changed and why they believe we should allow more second chances in the Commonwealth. Obviously, people not in prison reading their letters aloud was the only way they could have been in the room that day.

In an effort to appear neutral, the hearing on bills dealing with the sentence of life without the possibility of parole proceeded by interspersing those in favor with those opposed to the proposed Senate and House bills. Those opposed gave heart-wrenching testimony about their losses and the betrayal they felt at the possibility that those convicted might be eligible for parole. Those were some of the few times the chair allowed witnesses to exceed their time limits.

It was a difficult balance to keep but it was as if that alternation between sides was supposed to in some way even the scales of justice. Given the pain in the room, it was almost absurd. How on earth can one hear three minutes from a woman who lost her husband to a brutal murder and then be expected to absorb the testimony of a man who both killed someone and was himself a victim of a violent crime? Without any conversation? Without a chance for them to talk to each other? The task of listening in such a situation is daunting for anyone. Perhaps it is no coincidence that, of the 17 committee members, 7 or 8 did not show at all that day.

The committee would have been better served to listen closely to arguments about evolving standards of decency and whether we as a Commonwealth should abandon life without the possibility of parole, which is also called living death or death by incarceration. We do not want to re-argue our testimony here, but, needless to say, without engaging those who testified and by barring the voices of those who are incarcerated, the committee robbed itself of the ability to benefit fully from the expertise in and out of that room, including advocates and those affected on all sides of the issue.

Originally scheduled for 1 p.m., the hearing was abruptly rescheduled for 11 a.m., nominally to accommodate those observing the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur which began at sundown that evening. However, the hearing did not end until after 7 p.m., well after sundown. Again, this is not unusual. When 60 bills are on the docket for one day, committees must often stay late into the evening. But consider this: the Massachusetts Legislature closes its doors for St. Patrick’s Day. A hearing would never be scheduled to extend past 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Why would the committee court confusion and ire and conduct such a hearing that runs into the eve of the holiest day of the Jewish year?

Meet the Author

David J. Harris

Managing director, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice Harvard Law School
Meet the Author

Jean Trounstine

Author, activist, and professor emerita, Middlesex Community College
We think it is past time to reconsider a deliberative process shrouded by disrespect, mystery, and legislators’ blank stares. It could well be that committee members do weigh all the testimony, oral and written. But the public, shuffled in and out in three-minute increments, has no way of knowing whether their remarks are actually being heard. The public has no window into a committee’s deliberative process and never learns why a bill sails through or alternatively fails to get out of committee, never coming before the full Legislature for a vote. It is as if there is a curtain that is deliberately drawn.

As we contemplate the various threats to our democracy today, from voter suppression to rampant abuses of power at the highest levels of our government, we must devote some attention to these local, seemingly minor, degradations. If we are to have any hope of creating a flourishing democracy, we must find a way to facilitate rather than stifle the exchange of ideas between members of the public and elected officials. An important step in that direction would be for the General Court to revamp and revise its committee hearing process.

David J. Harris is the managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. Jean Trounstine is an author, activist and professor emerita at Middlesex Community College whose latest book is Boy With A Knife: A Story of Murder, Remorse and a Prisoner’s Fight for Justice.