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Boston lawmakers, advocates continue pushing for criminal justice reform

Advised to delay policy asks for a reform study; many say study is over, and wait too must end

Jule Pattison-Gordon | 1/25/2017, 10:45 a.m.
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz took advantage of a Martin Luther King Day speaking spot to evoke the historic leader and call ...
Sen. Sonia-Chang Diaz. The senator used her Martin Luther King Day speech to raise a call for action on reforms that could reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Banner photo

At Boston’s annual Martin Luther King Day memorial breakfast, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz broke with tradition, giving a speech that turned evocations of King’s legacy into a demand for action on criminal justice reform. Quoting King’s warning that the word “wait” often turns into the word “never,” Chang-Diaz said the time has come for state leadership to stop delaying action on policies that could reduce racial disparities in incarceration.

“For the past four-and-a-half years of my eight years as a lawmaker, we have been told by the big three leaders of the state legislature and executive branch on Beacon Hill to wait,” Chang-Diaz said.

Members of the state Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, activists and many other community members long have sought measures such as repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses. The measure has racially disparate impact, results in higher than necessary prison populations and can make parole less effective because fewer people are eligible, many advocates say.

Attempts by lawmakers to enact legislative reforms often have been met with the advice to wait until the initiatives could be folded into a more comprehensive reform package, Chang-Diaz said, specifically, until the national nonprofit Council of State Governments (CSG) could analyze Massachusetts’ criminal justice system and provide policy recommendations.

In late December, when the CSG held its final scheduled working group session, it became clear that racial disparities were never assigned as a study focus. Activists organized by Jobs Not Jail marched out in the middle of the meeting to protest the study’s limited scope and the lack of representation of people of color in the CSG group.

“While we were expecting our leaders to finally make good on their promises, word got out that the [CSG’s] final analysis was not going to touch on the issues of sentencing reform or racial bias that we had been told was coming,” Chang-Diaz said. “Scores of black and brown protestors demonstrated at the final public meeting of the council. But they were told blankly by the all-white panel of appointed experts that were there that sentencing reforms were never part of their charge.”

Her speech drew cheers and applause.

Momentum builds

The Council on State Governments has yet to present bills for filing, giving many hope that there is still time to influence the anticipated criminal justice policy package.

State Rep. Russell Holmes said Chang-Diaz’s comments may have helped move criminal justice issues forward with state leadership. In his quarterly meeting with the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus last Thursday, Governor Charlie Baker said he would consider reforms to bail and probation fees, which many see as placing an undue burden on low-income defendants.

Bail reform advocates say that such fees can mean low-income individuals are held pretrial solely due to their financial limitations, not their flight risk. Being detained may cause individuals to fall behind on rent and utility payments, miss work and be unable to pick up children from school or support their families — all while there is yet to be a ruling on their guilt.