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Report out Massachusetts criminal justice reform recommendations

Proposals expected to turn into law, but many say they do not go far enough

Jule Pattison-Gordon | 2/23/2017, 6 a.m.

The Council of State Governments released its criminal justice reform recommendations report on Tuesday. The group’s work in Massachusetts has been a source of controversy because although it targets recidivism issues, it does not address methods for reducing racial disparities in the criminal justice system or initial instances of criminal justice system involvement.

State Rep. Russell Holmes told the Banner that these recommendations on recidivism will make an impact, but that more must be done to the need for reform.

“This is a huge step on one side of the issue,” Holmes said. “But we also need to look at how to address people getting into the system.”

The CSG’s proposals includes measures such as expanding access to pre- and post-release programming, along with enhancing incentives for participation, bolstering post-release supervision and streamlining the parole release process. During the report release announcement at the State House at Tuesday morning, House Speaker Robert DeLeo voiced a commitment to providing high quality post-release support such as job training and substance addiction programs and aid in securing housing.

Chief Justice Ralph Gants commented on the importance of anti-recidivism programs to ensure that the incarceration process actually makes people less dangerous.

“When you focus on recognition that everyone but those convicted of first degree murder is going to get out of jail at a point in time, and when you focus on them doing things we want them to do, such as get substance abuse help, get job training, get jobs and housing — it focuses you on a whole set of things,” Gants said.

The report recommendations are expected to be filed for implementation in one legislative package.

CSG study

Governor Charlie Baker’s administration invited the CSG to study the state’s criminal justice system and outlined what would be the group’s scope. Between 2016 and 2017, the group analyzed more than 13 million state records and conducted more than 300 in-person interviews. The Pew Charitable Trusts and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance also provided support.

Another source of contention: the makeup of the 25-member working group. The team included only two people of color. It also largely comprised law enforcement representatives, said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. While they are an important voice in the issue, they are far from the only important voice, he said.

Report’s gaps

For years, activists and legislators have sought changes, such as discontinuation of mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses, and were asked to wait on legislation until the CSG had time to prepare a report. Now they are calling for action on their proposals to be paired with legislation on the CSG proposals.

Jobs Not Jails demonstrators turned out for the report release announcement. The protestors held mock-report cards assigning the report an “F” grade for neglecting to meet demands such as an end to mandatory minimum and youth criminalization. Speaking to reporters following the event, one protestor said the CSG failed to examine causes or present solutions to the criminal justice system’s disproportionate targeting of people of color and people with low incomes. Among the problems faced by those with limited finances: inability to retain expensive lawyers or to pay bail in order to be released pre-trial, causing missed days of work and lessened ability to prepare a strong court approach, she said.