Coalition pushing for criminal justice reform

Martin Desmarais | 4/9/2014, 10:51 a.m.

Prison reform advocates in the state are gearing up for a busy month. The Jobs Not Jails Coalition has a Boston rally planned on April 26 and will return four days later to present a petition to Massachusetts Legislature — all the efforts targeted to show decision-makers the groundswell of support to change prison policy.

The Jobs Not Jails campaign is rallying around estimates from Gov. Deval Patrick’s office that the state will spend $2 billion by 2020 to build 10,000 new prison units, as well as $150 million each year to fill them. In addition, Massachusetts has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world and more than 60 percent of prisoners released from the jails in the state re-offend within three years. All these stats are facts that Jobs Not Jails coalition members decry as unacceptable.

Jobs Not Jails is pushing for a reduction in prison spending and funneling the resulting savings into jobs and employment programs that can help the formerly incarcerated during re-entry into the working world and help reduce recidivism rates in the state.

What coalition members are calling for is not unprecedented because others states — including New York, Washington and Texas — have overhauled their criminal justice systems and thus reduced prison populations, closed prisons and saved taxpayers billions of dollars.

The prison reforms that drive Jobs Not Jails include: ending mandatory minimum drug sentences; diversion of low-level drug offenders to treatment even before trial; eliminating counter-productive “collateral sanctions” such as an automatic driver’s license suspension for drug offenses, and high fees for probation, parole, court costs and telephone charges; reforming the systems of parole and probation; bail reform; restoring educational programs including vocational education as well as college-level courses in prisons and jails.

According to Steve O’Neill, executive director of Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, many of these reforms are already on the table in Massachusetts, so the hope is that the rally and petition can help push legislators to move forward on them.

O’Neill said that his Worcester-based organization, known as EPOCA, which has 300 members, 2,500 associate members and is a lead organizer of Jobs Not Jails, has been unable to garner sufficient attention from lawmakers in the past. Bringing together organizations from across the state was done with the hope to have more of an impact with greater numbers.

“Any kind of issues that we would raise that would cost state money we would get blowback from the Legislature, and they say there is no money,” O’Neill said. “To win those kinds of causes, the really deep-seated, deep-rooted flaws in our system, we knew it was going to take something much louder than our voices. It was going to take a much louder public outcry.”

The Jobs Not Jails rally set for Boston Common on April 26 is planned to be the first big demonstration of this year. Jobs Not Jails brings together over 80 organizations from across the state, so organizers expect at least 4,000 people to attend. The groups range from nonprofits that support the formerly incarcerated to family service providers to religious organizations to lawyers’ guilds.