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Many fear state criminal justice reforms will be too few

New Council of State Government’s report may bring big changes or missed opportunity

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Many fear state criminal justice reforms will be too few
Russell Holmes

Spurred by reports of police brutality across the country, the state’s Black and Latino Legislative Caucus last July drafted a letter urging action on an agenda of policing and criminal justice reforms. The state Legislature declined to act on the proposals before ending the session.

Now, with the legislative session re-opening in January and with criminal justice reform recommendations arriving this week from a nationally-operating nonprofit, the chance to act emerges again.

The nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center collaborated with local leaders over the past year to examine Massachusetts’ criminal justice system and formulate recommendations for the legislature to consider. The working group’s explorations turned an eye to drivers of incarceration, recidivism trends and other topics.

The local CSG team included a five-member steering committee comprising Governor Charlie Baker, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, Chief Justice Ralph Gants, Senate President Stan Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo. They were joined by a 25-member working group that included elected officials and state and local stakeholders.

A long time coming

CSG’s report was slated for release this Wednesday. Speaking to the Banner on Monday, state Rep. Russell Holmes said the upcoming legislative session represents a critical window for enacting change, and if the opportunity is not fully realized, it may not come again for years. The CSG report release focuses political will and energy on criminal justice — a level of attention that Holmes predicted is likely then to swing away, with no follow-up criminal justice investigation on the horizon.

“If we don’t do it now, my concern is it won’t be done for another ten years,” Holmes told the Banner. “People will say, ‘Well, Massachusetts had its turn at criminal justice reform.’ … We won’t have momentum to go back to this in two years. We need to address this now, because this is when it’ll have the attention of everyone in the building.”

The Caucus’s July letter called for items such as implicit bias training for police officers; establishment of special independent prosecutors to investigate police-involved shootings; data collection and sharing of police pedestrian and traffic stops, including information on race; and funding for trauma support.

For months, elected officials pushing for criminal justice reform were met with advice to wait until the report’s release. Now that time has come and, Holmes said, with word emerging that the report is less extensive than hoped, many do not want reform to end where the report does.

“On so many things, it’s been said to us ‘Let’s hold on, wait and see what the report says.’” Holmes recounted. “We want other things included other than just what’s in the report.”

Broad agenda sought

While the report’s upcoming release represents opportunity for change, it also has generated widespread concerns that it will not be comprehensive enough.

Last week, the Jobs Not Jail coalition held a rally in Boston, during which members called for items they hoped would be included or receive legislative action. Among the items: eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and expunging juvenile misdemeanor records.

On Dec. 6, four Roman Catholic bishops sent a letter to the local CSG steering committee, urging the report and legislation to support at minimum several reforms, if not go beyond them. The reforms sought by the bishops are: ending long mandatory minimum jail sentences for nonviolent drug offenses; promoting, creating and funding substance abuse treatment programs to be used instead of incarceration; increasing funding for in-prison drug abuse and mental health services, education and job training; increasing funding to re-entry programs providing job training and placement, drug treatment, mental health services and housing support; reducing potential employers’ access to applicants’ criminal record information; and streamlining and simplifying parole eligibility and the parole-granting system.

The letter is signed by Sean O’Malley, Boston’s Archbishop; Robert McManus, Bishop of Worcester; Mitchell Rozanski, Bishop of Springfield; and Edgar da Cunha, Bishop of Fall River. The clerics cite a report finding that inmates wait on average 206 days between receiving parole and actually being released and they say the recommended reforms are critical steps in helping many offenders become productive members of society.

Speaking to the Banner on Monday, several elected officials said they were committed to pushing forward legislative action, not limited to the CSG recommendations. Black and Latino Caucus members were slated to meet with the House speaker on Tuesday to discuss potential for bringing a broader menu of reforms, Holmes said.

Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry said she expected the CSG report would help drive legislative action, and said that it is important to put forth additional legislation, should anything be missing from the CSG recommendations.

“Hopefully with their recommendations, we’ll be able to plow ahead with several [legislative recommendations],” she told the Banner. “Having a report like this is very important — it does push the agenda.”

Dorcena Forry highlighted change to mandatory minimum sentencing laws as one priority measure. Also high on the Caucus’s list: a halt on prison construction and implementation of intervention and prevention measures — including providing social emotional counseling in schools with high levels of absenteeism. Holmes said he and others seek to ensure that racial impact of criminal justice policies is covered in sufficient depth.

James Mackey, community organizer and coordinator for Opportunity Youth United, launched a series of “Stuck on Replay” events designed to generate community discussion on incarceration, recidivism and related issues and amplify their voice. The timing of the Stuck on Replay series was designed to coincide with the CSG’s work.

Among items Mackey would like to see include: steps to remove the burden of probation fees — which drain money from those already struggling to find employment — and more convenient access to counseling centers for those released from prison. At one Stuck on Replay event, formerly incarcerated attendees highlighted the important role of such counseling centers in helping them secure housing, education and employment. Mackey also said improving education can help prevent criminal justice involvement.

The CSG team

Holmes and Mackey expressed concerns that the CSG groups’ membership lacks racial diversity, which Holmes said could undermine people’s views of the legitimacy of the report produced. Mackey also said he hopes that the CSG incorporated feedback from formerly incarcerated individuals, including about anti-recidivism programs that were effective for them.

Mackey expressed concern that the CSG team’s work was guided by pre-existing priorities and may not have sufficiently engaged the local community. At CSG meetings he attended, audience members were barred from asking questions or speaking.

“No community input is allowed at meetings,” Mackey said. “Why is this the process?”

A member of the CSG’s press office said the committee engaged more than more than 25 advocacy organizations in the state and interviewed currently incarcerated individuals.

No members of the Black and Latino Caucus served on the CSG steering committee or working group.