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Activists plead for legislators to create jobs, not prisons

Call for focus on helping to turn around lives

Deirdre Isom, of Providence was among the hundreds of people at a rally on Boston Common, asking lawmakers to work on creating long-term, living-wage jobs.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Deirdre Isom, of Providence was among the hundreds of people at a rally on Boston Common, asking lawmakers to work on creating long-term, living-wage jobs.

Thirteen years ago, Larry Turner’s son, Joel, was slain in his Dorchester apartment when three young men, high on drugs, broke down the door during a robbery. One of them stabbed him in the heart. Joel was 19.

Months later, Larry Turner was in court for one of the arraignments. He happened to see the mother of one of his son’s killers, charged with a crime of her own. It made him realize, even more clearly, that the young man had led a troubled life.

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“What we need is 24/7 community-based intervention,” he said to hundreds of people who gathered on Boston Common in the rain and cold on Saturday afternoon. “Programs that replace juvenile court and lockup, and turn around kids like Joel’s killer.”

Turner teaches at an inner-city Worcester school and told the crowd that unless the problems of too few jobs, low pay, high rents, drugs, and increasing incarceration are addressed, “too many of those kids will end up doing time and never get their lives together.”

The rally was sponsored by the Coalition for Jobs not Jails, made up of 100 organizations across the state, including carpenters’ unions, faith groups, and the Worcester-based Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement.

The coalition is urging lawmakers to end prison expansion in the state, instead using the money to create jobs that pay living wages. Members are also asking lawmakers to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, raise the minimum wage, and support funding that so that people charged with nonviolent drug offenses can get addiction treatment rather than prison.

“There’s kind of a historical moment here where people have realized the mistakes of the last 40 years of so-called tough on crime,” said Steve O’Neill, executive director for interstate organizing, before the rally. “If we can pull everybody together and move in the same direction, we can create some really meaningful changes.”

The state’s prisons are currently over capacity. The speakers worried about spending money to build prisons at a time when manufacturing jobs have disappeared and more jobs are becoming automated.

Donnell Wright of Springfield spoke to the crowd, which frequently chanted, “Jobs, not jails,” about his difficulty returning to a productive life after being released from prison. He held up certificates and diplomas he has received: a real estate license, a commercial trucking license, an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree.

“Guess what I don’t have?” he asked. “A job.”

Although potential employers are interested when they talk to him and see his degrees, once they do a background check — called a Criminal Offender Record Information check — and learn that he has been in prison, they no longer want to consider him for a job, he said.

As the Legislature debates bills on criminal justice and jobs, the group wants to show lawmakers that voters want change. Wednesday, the group plans to wrap orange banners filled with about 30,000 signatures around the State House to call attention to its cause.

“This is one of the real civil rights issues of our time,” said Warren Tolman, a Democrat running for state attorney general. African-Americans are eight times more likely to go to jail “than someone who looks like me,” he said.

His primary opponent, Maura Healey, also spoke to the crowd.

“I understand what happens when too many lives get embroiled in and can’t get out of a criminal justice system that is not working, that is failing you, failing our families, and failing our communities,” she said.

Kathleen Burge can be reached at kathleen.burge@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @KathleenBurge.
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