Senator Edward J. Markey and Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, rivals in the Democratic Senate primary, staked out progressive ground on criminal justice Tuesday night. They threw their support behind ending prison sentences of life without parole, decriminalizing sex work, and giving incarcerated felons the right to vote.
With voting already underway in the hotly contested primary race, the virtual event hosted by Suffolk University, the WGBH Forum Network, and the Justice Reform Coalition, gave both candidates the opportunity to burnish their credentials as champions of criminal justice reform. Organizers called it the first candidate forum in a Massachusetts Senate race organized by formerly incarcerated people.
Markey and Kennedy offered similar responses to questions from a panel that included formerly incarcerated people, who asked the same questions of each candidate in back-to-back sessions.
Both men said they would support legislation to abolish the use of solitary confinement. Both criticized plans to build a new women’s prison in the state. Both said they would support alternative programs to keep parents of children out of prison, and — in response to a question from an inmate at Souza-Baranowski prison — that incarcerated people should not lose their right to vote.
(Massachusetts was one of three states where incarcerated felons could vote until 2000, when a ballot question amending the state constitution to revoke that right passed by a 2-to-1 margin.)
“We can tell a lot about a nation by who it imprisons,” Markey said at one point. “We disproportionately imprison those who are Black and brown, or have mental illness . . . We just have to change the system.”
In a powerful moment, Kennedy said that he now supports ending prison sentences of life without the possibility of parole, the first time he had publicly spoken about that position.
“This one, candidly, has been one that I’ve had to wrestle with. A man who shot a member of my own family is still incarcerated, but he was given an option for parole,” Kennedy said, referring to the assassination of his grandfather, Robert F. Kennedy, in 1968.
Kennedy spoke haltingly, seeming to struggle with his emotions a bit, as he addressed the questioner, Leslie Credle, a mother who was in prison when her 22-year-old daughter was killed.
“M’am, I’ve thought about this a lot of late. I recently came out in favor of ending life without parole sentences for everybody,” Kennedy said. “I do think it is important to make sure that voices of victims and victims’ families are heard in those parole hearings. I think it’s important that those voices are given the audience that they need.”
A campaign aide said Kennedy first articulated his support for ending life without parole about a month ago, in a questionnaire from the event organizers. Kennedy has met with criminal justice advocates on the issue in recent months as he considered embracing the position, the aide said.
“I also think that for folks that have been incarcerated for 50, 60, sometimes longer, years . . . that they should be given the chance to be able to make the case for their liberty,” he said.
Markey also said he supports ending life without parole, though he focused his answer on Massachusetts, saying the state should “be a model” for the rest of the country.
“We have to create a world where everyone has a chance to redeem themselves, to show that they can be entered into society. . . . There has to be a reason to live,” Markey said.
While both men said they support decriminalizing sex work, Kennedy appeared to go further, saying he believes “the time has come to decriminalize and legalize sex work.” He added that he wanted to work with advocates to ensure the result isn’t a system that makes it easier for sex workers to be exploited. “I think there’s a way to do that,” Kennedy said.
“It’s our responsibility to listen to sex workers and advocates to work together on how to move forward,” Markey said.
When the questions were opened up to the broader virtual audience, both candidates got more pointed queries. Kennedy was asked why, when he is campaigning on the need for change, he did not back three insurgent candidates — Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, and state Representative Nika Elugardo of Boston, endorsing in each case the incumbent or establishment candidate they challenged.
Kennedy defended his record of campaigning for Democrats who “have in fact brought about changes across our country,” pointing to his work helping flip the House to Democrats in 2018. He said deciding to endorse incumbent Representative Mike Capuano over Pressley in the 2018 primary was “a very tough choice,” but Capuano was a mentor. He also noted that Markey did not endorse any of the three progressives, either.
Markey stayed neutral in those races. He has been endorsed by Rollins and Elugardo in the Senate primary.
Markey was asked why he voted for the 1994 crime bill, which has come to be widely criticized for leading to mass incarceration and harming communities of color.
He noted that the entire Massachusetts congressional delegation voted for it, naming the late Senator Ted Kennedy — his opponent’s great uncle — among them. And he argued that the controversial legislation contained good elements, like the ban on assault weapons and the first Violence Against Women Act. “But yes, those sentencing provisions were wrong,” Markey said.
The primary is Sept. 1, but voting by mail has already begun.