“There is no issue more worthy of our efforts, and no time left for inaction.”

The MassCJRC Journal

Massachusetts is at a crossroads. For years, leaders at the highest levels of state government have been promising to take on comprehensive criminal justice reform; to mine the data, to develop policies based on what we need and what is proven to work, and to bring these proposals forward for a vote. In the summer of 2015, we saw a first step in this direction when the Speaker of the House, the Senate President, the Governor, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court united to commission the Council of State Governments (CSG) to review and analyze our criminal justice system data and the outcomes we are producing.

What the CSG found was staggering. Fewer than half of those incarcerated in state prisons complete the recidivism-reduction programming recommended for them prior to their release. People involved in the criminal justice system (at every stage) have high substance abuse and/or mental health treatment needs that are going unaddressed. Our state lacks a standardized system for collecting data at all levels of the justice system, making tracking trends and outcomes difficult. Of course, making changes to all of these aspects of our system should be a priority.

But what the CSG didn’t find, or rather, what it was never tasked with looking into, is just as troubling. Absent from the CSG study was any focus on front-end problems, like the cash-bail and pretrial process, or sentencing reforms, like eliminating mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases and raising the felony threshold for low-level property crimes. Without a holistic look at how our justice system operates, from the beginning of the pipeline to the end, we are bound to continue the kinds of costly, racially disproportionate, and unjust policies that have brought us to the realities we’re facing today.

While Massachusetts is sometimes lauded for a low overall incarceration rate compared to other states, we must look, again, at what this perspective leaves out. Incarceration in every US state is significantly higher than in many other countries. Our own incarceration rate has tripled since the 1980s, before the “tough on crime” era picked up steam, and exceeds that of China, Canada, and Germany by significant margins. For some perspective, if the Bay State was a country, we’d be among the top 15% highest per capita incarcerators in the world.

Where our own residents are concerned, decades of racially biased sentencing policies have had an overwhelming and irrefutable impact on communities of color, both in regard to the individuals we are locking up and to the neighborhoods they leave behind. While Blacks and Latinos make up less than one-fifth of the state population, they account for more than half of the incarcerated population in our state, and they represent about 75% of those convicted of drug crimes that carry a mandatory minimum sentence. Addressing these issues must also be a priority.

Following the release of the CSG report in February, which provided a starting point of “low hanging fruit” criminal justice investments, and looking forward to the public hearings on a variety of criminal justice proposals slated to commence in the coming months, we must make a collective decision to make comprehensive reform a real priority. We must fight for a package that includes pretrial and sentencing reforms at its core, and we must do it this session.

I was proud to join my colleagues in the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, the House Progressive Caucus, the Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus, and the Women’s Caucus’s Justice Involved Women’s Task Force at a press conference last week to stake out this agenda in the legislature. It is going to take a significant effort on our part to maintain this momentum, and to work with House and Senate Leadership to craft legislation that will accomplish our goals. But there is no issue more worthy of our efforts, and no time left for inaction.

-Sonia Chang-Diaz

State Senator, Second Suffolk District

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz speaks at Tuesday press conference calling for comprehensive criminal justice reform.

 

Massachusetts

Legislators from several caucuses call for expanding reforms beyond the Governor’s proposed CSG bill.

Governor Baker files a bill proposing to allow defendants to work off fines through community service rather than being held in jail when they can’t afford the levies.

A new capital master plan for state courts proposes big upgrades and consolidations to be rolled out over the next 20 years.

The Supreme Judicial Court hears a case on state law enforcement officials holding immigrants for the federal government.

Approximately 20,000 drug related cases, which were found to be tainted by former state chemist Annie Dookhan, are dismissed.

Berkshire Eagle editorial says the Probation Department corruption scandal may have ended with no convictions, but had positive impacts.

Law enforcement officials nabbed 30 would-be “johns” between February and early April in their effort to combat sex trafficking.

Other States

Three academics call on New York State to undergo the same bail reform enacted by New Jersey. 

Gov. Jim Justice signs the West Virginia Second Chance for Employment Act, meant to help non-violent felons improve their job opportunities.

Atlanta activists look to push through a law which would make possession of small amounts of marijuana a non-arrestable offense.

The Oklahoma House of Representatives votes to expand the use of drug courts.

Mark Holden of Koch Industries pushes for criminal justice reform in Louisiana.

Wayne Hughes Jr. wants California to expand and research the effectiveness of veteran’s hospitals in state- and he’s willing to foot part of the bill.

A bill in Mississippi to help inmates gain employment and successfully re-integrate into society looks likely to pass.

A privatized jail is set to close in Indianapolis.

Federal

Rep. Doug Collins on the conservative push for criminal justice reform on the federal level.

Jared Kushner emerges as a White House voice for criminal justice reform, putting him at odds with Attorney General Sessions.

From the Researchers

A new poll from the Charles Koch Institute suggests surprising support for criminal justice reform, even among Trump voters.

The number of gun-related arrests of juveniles in Boston is up sharply over the first three months of the year compared with the same period in 2016.

CJPP launches criminal justice debt reform builder, a 50-state web resource.

The Sentencing Project looks to dispel myths about immigrant’s crime rates with a new report.

Researchers look at the importance of granting inmates access to technology.

From the Media

Slate and the Fair Punishment Project discuss how mandatory minimum sentences fail to make communities safer, and call out District Attorneys who consistently oppose revisiting sentencing law.

The Washington Post editorial board writes that New York’s smart criminal justice reform sets an example for AG Sessions.

NPR looks at the case of one homeless many suffering from schizophrenia to shine a spotlight on the revolving door that can sometimes be our prison system.

Charles Blain calls for the modernization of our prison education systems.

James Ridgeway of Mother Jones looks at whether the United States can feasibly support our aging prison population.

NFL players push legislatures to reform broken criminal justice system.

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