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Criminal justice reform groups gear up for change in 2017

Activists see hope, narrow window; set sights on this legislative session

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Passing comprehensive criminal justice reform hinges on this legislative session, says Calvin Feliciano of Jobs Not Jails. His coalition is turning up the heat to make it happen, with appeals to public officials and efforts to engage constituents across the region. During an evening action planning meeting in Boston last week, Jobs Not Jails rallied members to make calls to District Attorney Dan Conley. The DA is an outspoken opponent of elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, which is one of the activists’ key demands.

More than 100 phone calls were made the day after the Wednesday night meeting, Feliciano said. The group also issued a request on Facebook for constituents to urge Conley to support a collection of reforms including CORI reform, a higher felony theft threshold, elimination of mandatory minimum sentences and elimination of collateral fees.

“We’re breaking out all over the state, bringing regional activists together and using that to put pressure on state senators and representatives and to build public awareness and support for the campaign,” Feliciano said in a Banner phone interview. “We’ve got to get it done before December.”

Following on a year-long analysis and examination of the state’s criminal justice system in February, the nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center issued a series of policy recommendations focused on reducing recidivism. The report and recommendations led to a bill filed by Governor Charlie Baker.

Meanwhile, many state legislators have filed bills that aim to reduce initial incarceration and take anti-recidivism further. The bills include measures that raise the property value level at which a theft counts as a felony, reform the cash bail system, and guarantee basic right to counsel for anyone facing incarceration — regardless of the defendant’s ability to pay.

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz said in an emailed statement to the Banner that while it is too early to predict what criminal justice reform legislation will be passed, it is critical that constituents make their wants known.

“Public pressure from outside the State House is what’s going to make the difference between a bill that nibbles around the edges and one that makes good on the promise of real, systemic reform,” she said.

Conley’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Time is now

Feliciano said that next year politicians will be facing re-election and will find it too politically risky to take a stand on reforms. Because of this, activists are focusing on 2017.

“They’re not going to try to pass anything related to criminal justice reform and be painted by Republicans as soft on crime in an election year, especially one without a president on the ballot,” Feliciano said. “We think it’s 2017 or never.”

In some ways, the opioid crisis may give the reform push an extra edge by bringing the issue home to white suburban and rural communities that previously may have been more sheltered from experiencing impacts of the current criminal justice system, Feliciano said.

“Sadly, the only reason we’re going to get something done on criminal justice reform is the opioid crisis in white communities showing them that even in nice communities, white towns, those kids can get addicted to drugs. If they get addicted, they may steal,” Feliciaino said. “If you’re an upper-middle-class white family in Newton and have a kid who gets addicted to drugs and steals something that costs more than $250, now your kid — your white daughter or white son who you know is a good kid — they’re a felon.”

Legislation filed by Sen. Chang-Diaz would raise the threshold at which theft registers as a felony, rather than a misdemeanor, to thefts of property valued at $1,500.

If the youth gets caught for nonviolent drug offense, they could be sent away for several years under mandatory minimum sentence rules and return with a CORI and difficulty getting work, Feliciano added. The campaign has gained support in some more traditionally conservative rural and suburban communities, he said.

Mandatory minimums

Race continues to color reform efforts, Feliciano said. In his view, one of the hardest issues on which to gain action is elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing, which he credits to the issue being regarded as almost exclusively affecting low-income people of color. One main line of opposition to mandatory minimums is that prosecutors frequently leverage them to pressure defendants into pleading guilty to lesser offenses rather than risk the chance of years being incarcerated, should they be found guilty.

“It has a very coercive effect. … In my years of practicing, I don’t think I ever saw a prosecutor who didn’t initially charge somebody with a mandatory minimum when they had the opportunity to do it,” Randy Gioia, deputy chief counsel of the public defender division of the state’s Committee for Public Counsel Services, said during a criminal justice panel in March.

Meanwhile, D.A. Conley told WBZ in early March that mandatory minimums keep Boston safe.

“We reserve mandatory minimum sentences for drug traffickers, for murderers, for child rapists, and for repeat drunk drivers and people carrying firearms without a license. And this is part of the recipe, part of the formula. … When we target them for swift and certain incarceration, it drives crime down,” Conley said.