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The Bay State Banner
The Bay State Banner

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Protest at criminal justice meeting

Activists, legislators say reforms, representation are lacking

Jule Pattison-Gordon

After more than an hour of listening to white appointees discuss racial disparities in the state’s criminal justice system and debate the future of state reforms, Calvin Feliciano had had enough. He stood, half the audience rising with him in protest.

“We are extremely disheartened by the entire process and by the lack of diversity at the table,” Feliciano said, interrupting a conversation that had focused on parole and in-prison programming. No opportunity had been given at the meeting for community member attendees to be heard.

Feliciano told the local Council of State Governments team meeting in a conference room at One Ashburton Place that it was focused too much on reducing people’s likelihood of recidivating once they are out of jail, and too little on preventing them from getting incarcerated in the first place. His message echoed that of many activists, legislators and church leaders who sent letters and protested in weeks and months leading up to last week’s meeting.

“End mandatory minimums. That’s the way to do it. And give us jobs. That’s all we want,” Feliciano said. “We don’t want more supervision. We don’t want you to hire 10,000 more parole officers. We just want to work and provide for our families.”

Feliciano, who grew up in the South End and was first incarcerated at age 13, said lack of economic opportunity drives people to turn — or return — to crime, and the policy needs to face that reality. He has since become a productive member of society, he said, and is the deputy director of SEIU 509 and a member of Jobs Not Jails.

He and much of the audience marched out of the room, chanting “Jobs not jails.” Many carried signs calling for the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing and questioning the lack of inclusion of people of color in the decision making.

The meeting was the final session scheduled for the Council of State Governments working group to discuss policy reform proposals. A forthcoming report from the group is expected to lead into one comprehensive criminal justice bill package in January. Members of the CSG emphasized they were presenting ideas only, not yet formal recommendations.

State Rep. Russell Holmes, the chair of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, recently told the Banner that he is concerned that the opportunity will be lost to pass any reforms that do not make it through the legislature this session.

Waiting … and waiting

Feliciano voiced elements of what many community members as well as members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus long have been seeking, including repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, inclusion of preventative measures in the CSG recommendations and a greater voice of people of color in reshaping a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates blacks and Latinos.

“You have a population that’s majority of color and then, when you look at the group making decisions, out of 25 people only two are of color, and one has resigned,” Holmes told the Banner in a phone interview. “It discredits the process.”

On the day of the meeting, a coalition of 22 organizations, including the ACLU, Roca, League of Women Voters and Stuck on Replay, sent a letter asking for reform measures to include repeal of mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, support of restorative justice, CORI reform, income-based bail reform, raising the threshold at which a theft is considered a felony and promotion of substance abuse and mental health treatment over criminal prosecution

When Caucus members pushed for criminal justice and policing reforms last summer, they were told to wait until the Council of State Governments could conclude its work. But that wait has not paid off, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said last week.

“Our justice system is deeply broken, expensive and racist, and for the last two years legislators and grassroots activists alike have been baited into believing this ‘Justice Reinvestment Initiative’ was going to make a serious effort at fixing that,” Chang-Diaz said in a statement the day after the meeting. “Yesterday I watched a room full of black and Latino demonstrators, who have been patient for the past two years, plead with an all-white panel of CSG working group members to say something or ask some questions about the devastating effects the criminal justice system has on their communities. … Yesterday we were placidly told ‘that was never part of our charge.’”

The CSG group was asked to investigate ways to reduce corrections spending and use the savings to implement strategies for decreasing recidivism and increasing public safety. Racial disparities were not a primary focus of the project. However, such disparities were the main topic at the last meeting.

Stark disparities

The CSG study found many racial disparities in sentencing and recidivism. For instance, whites who were sentenced in 2013 were more likely to be fined or put on probation — instead of incarcerated — than were blacks and Hispanics. While only 37 percent of whites receiving sentences were incarcerated, for blacks or Hispanics, the figure rose to 47 percent.

Whites also were allowed more often to keep convictions off their records, by receiving a continuance without a finding. In such cases, the individuals admit that their guilt could be proven, but nothing appears on their records so long as they comply with certain conditions during a probationary period.

Speaking after the meeting Holmes said he had been alarmed to hear District Attorney Michael O’Keefe state that, despite such data, he does not believe the system is racially biased.

“One of the last comments that he made was saying the criminal justice system is reactionary and it is not like they go out and actively look for people to enter the system,” Holmes recalled. “Our D.A.s, and [members of] our judicial system, probably need to look at their own implicit biases.”

Missing data

CSG’s Massachusetts project manager, Katie Mosehauer, said lack of available data or consistency in data collection— such as how race and ethnicity are identified and defined — prevented the team from assessing the cause of the noted disparities in the criminal justice system. For instance, if the disparity is due to some people receiving harsher sentences for the same level of offenses, that calls for a different type of policy redress than if it is due to members of those groups becoming involved in the system for committing different kinds of offenses. The available data only allowed for mapping the current situation, not assessing causality, Mosehauer said.

“The dissatisfying part is we can’t answer the why. And the why is really important,” she said.

Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program agreed in October to collaborate with the Massachusetts Judicial Court to fill in some of the missing details. In 2017, Harvard will initiate a study on racial disparities in adult sentencing, with aid from CSG.

Recidivism and mandatory minimums

Incarceration is driven by repeat offenders, the CSG report found, with the majority of those released from prison recidivating within three years.

Among the problems is that there is limited access during incarceration to the kinds of programming that could facilitate reentry into socieety. For instance, 17 percent of those needing substance abuse treatment did not get access to such a program. Recommendations included piloting an early intervention probation program tailored to the unique needs of 18-to-24 year-olds, assigning probation based on risk level so that officers are less burdened by caseloads and increasing both provision and attendee completion of support programs.

When Rep. Chris Markey said during the discussion that sentence reduction as a reward for completion could be a powerful motivator, another working group member noted that maintaining mandatory minimum sentences hampers such an effort.

One working group member also recalled earlier testimony stating that 80 percent of those incarcerated are not there on mandatory minimum sentences, suggesting that repeal of such sentencing requirements are not the full picture.

To Holmes, that data point also suggests that mandatory minimums are unnecessary.

“That validates the point for no need for mandatory minimums because already the judicial process will take care of itself, and most of them will be sentenced and sentenced pretty heavily without,” Holmes said.

Lewis Finfer of Jobs Not Jail said that his organization two years ago filed a reform bill that was put on hold for the CSG process. The legislation included mandatory minimum repeal and CORI reform. Now that it appears clearly that the CSG process will not address such issues, Jobs Not Jail will be refiling the bill in January, he said.