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Massachusetts senators push to end mandatory sentence minimums

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Massachusetts senators push to end mandatory sentence minimums
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg opens a discussion on criminal justice reform as senators Will Brownsberger, Cynthia Creem, Sonia Chang-Diaz and Jamie Eldridge look on.

With momentum building for criminal justice reform, state senators are preparing to push for a legislative package they say will reduce the number of people incarcerated in Massachusetts and save the state money.

In a recent meeting in the State House office of Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, members of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus and the Massachusetts Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus outlined their legislative priorities in a meeting with reporters.

Sen. William Brownsberger said he and his colleagues intend to work on the full spectrum of criminal justice reform, including what he termed “front-end issues” — alternative sentencing, bail reform and ending mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenses, as well as “back-end issues” affecting people exiting incarceration, such as good behavior and early release, and “collateral issues” — fees and fines that often keep low-income offenders caught in the criminal justice system.

Brownsberger stressed that the Council of State Government report, which sparked controversy among reform activists with its narrow focus on probation reforms, is a small portion of the overall push for change.

“There is a much bigger picture of criminal justice reform that the Senate and the House and the governor all have an interest in,” he said.

After an introduction from Rosenberg, the senators spoke about a wide range of legislative priorities.

First Middlesex and Suffolk Sen. Cheryl Creem said she plans to file legislation allowing judges to consider diversion for offenders under 17, giving judges more discretion to apply alternatives for minor offenses that would allow them to avoid having a criminal record as well as eliminating minimum mandatories.

“Judges ought to have the ability to look at all the facts when they do sentencing,” she said. “We’re spending $70 million keeping people behind bars in drug areas. Many people are doing longer sentences than people who are incarcerated for rape or burglary.”

Reform grows

The senators’ push to abolish mandatory minimums is in line with a growing movement in the United States — even among Republican-dominated states, Creem noted.

“Red states have been way out ahead of changing mandatory minimums because of cost issues,” she said.

Second Middlesex and Suffolk Sen. Karen Spilka said she would like to see the age for people in the juvenile justice system raised from 18 to 21, as well as an easier process to expunge juvenile records.

“We know that all kids make mistakes,” she said. “We are imposing sentences on young adults instead of giving them rehabilitation.”

Fourth Middlesex Sen. Kenneth Donnelly filed bail reform legislation aimed at reducing the number of low-income people held in jails without having been tried or convicted of a crime.

“Right now we are putting people in prison who don’t have the money to pay bail,” he said. “People that have money, who are selling drugs, can pay bail. It sets up a system that is not good.”

Donnelly, too, cited Republican-dominated states like Texas and Georgia that have reformed their bail system to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail.

“It shouldn’t be about how much money you have,” he said.

Third Middlesex District Sen. Michael Barrett said he plans to file legislation that would guarantee basic right to counsel for any facing incarceration, noting that many indigent defendants are sentenced to jail time due to their inability to pay fees and fines.

“The research on Senate Post-Audit indicates that there are people in Massachusetts who go to jail today without ever having been represented by a lawyer simply because of their inability to pay,” he said. “This is more than a reform priority. This is a question of the basic right to counsel established in the U.S. Constitution.”

Second Middlesex Sen. Pat Jehlen proposed legislation that would move geriatric prisoners who would otherwise be eligible into nursing homes or hospice care.

“It costs over $100,000 a year to keep somebody in the [Mass. Correctional Institute] Shirley nursing home facility,” she noted. “If they were in a nursing home facility, Medicaid would pick up half the cost. We could get some federal financial assistance.”

First Suffolk District Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz spoke in support of the Justice Re-investment Act, which proposes a raft of sentencing reforms — including the elimination of mandatory minimums — that would reduce the state’s prison population and then require the state to put the savings into a trust fund dedicated to programs that serve people such as victims of violence, veterans, people who don’t have high school diplomas and are over 18, those living below the federal poverty line and others.

She also is proposing that the threshold for felony larceny be raised from the current $250, which was set in the 1980s, to $1,500. Under the current law, people who steal cell phones and commit other small property crimes face jail sentences of up to five years.

“The criminal justice system from the front end to the back end is broken,” Chang-Diaz said. “It’s deeply broken at so many junctures in the system. It’s broken in cost, in terms of the big-picture numbers — in the fact that we’re locking up five times as many people as we did in Massachusetts in the 1970s.”

Unequal impact

Many of the reforms discussed in the meeting were priorities of the Harm Reduction Caucus and largely prompted by the large number of drug-addicted people committing crimes across the state. But, as Chang-Diaz noted, 75 percent of those convicted under the state’s mandatory minimum laws are black and Latino, despite the fact that those groups make up just 25 percent of the state’s population.

“There’s a huge racial justice element here,” she said.

Brownsberger said the Senate would also look at bills filed by members of the Black and Latino Caucus calling for mandatory public disclosure of data on the race of pedestrians and drivers stopped by police, and independent investigators in police-involved shootings.

“Those are definitely two of the bills that are on the table and we need to look at them,” he said.

Probation problems

Criminal justice reform activist Calvin Feliciano said he is encouraged by the senators’ focus on broader criminal justice reforms, but expressed concern about the Council of State Government, which he said is expected to include recommendations for more robust probation terms and increased post-release supervision.

“They don’t just want you to do three years, they want you to do three years and mandatory supervision,” he said. “Probation is not helpful. Probation doesn’t help you get a job. It doesn’t help you change your attitude or get drug treatment.”

Feliciano said ex-offenders on probation can be re-arrested and end up serving longer terms if they commit minor offenses such as talking to or associating with people who are felons or also on probation, or if they are arrested, even for a minor offense unrelated to the charges for which they served time.

The senators told reporters in Rosenberg’s office that they’re determined to pass meaningful reforms this year.

“Too many people are going into the system,” said First Suffolk District Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry. “Too many people are falling down, and we’re losing them by the day. This is an opportunity for us to do something. And to do it right. And to save the commonwealth money.”