Two lawmakers have introduced legislation that seeks to reduce the number of people imprisoned by the state and save taxpayers millions of dollars a year by overhauling sentencing laws and expanding job training.
The bill, dubbed “Jobs not Jails” by its sponsors, was filed Friday by state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, Democrat of Boston, and state Representative Mary S. Keefe, a Worcester Democrat. The sweeping legislation would repeal mandatory drug sentences, reduce some low-level felonies to misdemeanors, and change other laws, such as taking away driver’s licenses from drug offenders for years after the crime, making it difficult for them to get jobs.
It costs the state more than $47,000 a year to house an inmate, Chang-Diaz said. Under her proposal, savings from reducing the prison population would go to a state trust fund to pay for skills training and job placement programs.
“I hear constant frustration from my constituents about why are we spending so much on jails,” said Chang-Diaz. “And there are fewer things that infuriate me more than inefficient spending.”
Massachusetts spends more than $1 billion a year incarcerating an increasing number of offenders, even though the state’s overall crime rate has dropped, according to a 2013 report by MassINC, a Boston think tank. The “Jobs not Jails” legislation comes amid growing support in Massachusetts and nationally for reform of drug sentencing laws.
Voters in California recently passed a measure that reduced penalties for “nonserious and nonviolent” drug and property crimes. Known as Proposition 47, it redirected the savings to support dropout prevention, victim services, and other programs to help keep people out of prison.
In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker has said he supports repeal of mandatory minimum sentences as part of an overall strategy “to rethink how those with substance abuse issues are treated.”
The chief justice of the state Supreme Judicial Court, Ralph D. Gants, also has called for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, arguing they interfere with judges’ discretion, affect minorities disproportionately, and fail to rehabilitate drug users.
Although minorities made up only 32 percent of all convicted offenders in 2013 in Massachusetts, Gants said, they represented 75 percent of those convicted of drug offenses with mandatory sentences. In 2013, 450 defendants received mandatory sentences for drug offenses.
Keefe said such institutional racism has contributed to anger and protests over recent police shootings of unarmed black men in Missouri and New York. She said she hoped the bill’s efforts to address discrimination in criminal justice would win broad public support.
“The dialogue has gotten so frustrated and strident,” Keefe said. “Hopefully with some action, people will say, ‘OK, let’s get organized in changing the system.’ ”
Supporters of mandatory minimum sentencing say the laws are designed to target drug traffickers, not just users. Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, head of the Massachusetts Distirct Attorneys Association, has said the epidemic of heroin overdoses underscores that it’s not time to “make it easier for drug traffickers to avoid accountability.”
But Steve O’Neill, an executive director at Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, a Worcester nonprofit advocating for criminal justice reforms, said a smaller prison population would allow money to be diverted to job placement for former inmates or others struggling with unemployment, whether veterans, victims of violence, or youths. “This is a reinvestment,” O’Neill said.
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.