The state’s top judge on Tuesday urged an interfaith group to push for criminal justice reform when Massachusetts legislators take up the issue in the fall.
Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants of the state Supreme Judicial Court made the appeal during remarks at the Old South Church in Boston. He told about 900 members of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization that several proposals will be under consideration, including eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.
Gants, a longtime supporter of the measure, urged the interfaith group to lobby hard for its passage.
“We need your hustle, and we need your muscle,” Gants told the group, which is a coalition of Boston-area churches, mosques, temples, and community organizations that advocate for social justice.
Gants said judges in Massachusetts try to tailor sentences to meet the individual needs of offenders, but “mandatory minimum sentences [prevent] us from doing that.”
He also said advocates are working to ensure that people receive necessary job training and mental health counseling while incarcerated.
“It’s a vision of helping people get past their past” and rebuild their lives after legal troubles, Gants said.
Gants also praised the state Legislature for the recent passage of a bill that eliminated automatic license suspensions for drug convictions, a policy that advocates had long cited as an impediment to former convicts’ ability to obtain work.
However, he said, “there are many, many more [barriers] that individuals face that keep them from obtaining jobs and finding housing.”
The chief justice offered few specifics during his brief remarks but also said more needs to be done to combat racial bias in the court system.
“We’re working very hard to address that issue,” he said.
Beverley Williams, the chair of the interfaith group’s Criminal Justice Team, also voiced support for eliminating mandatory minimum penalties.
“It is a major part of why there are so many people serving long sentences,” she said.
Another speaker, Kendale Edwards, who grew up in the Lenox Street development in Boston, shared the difficulties he had finding work after a youthful drug conviction.
He drew applause when he said that people with criminal histories deserve a second chance.
“It is our human right as people that we still hold value,” Edwards said.
Speakers at the event also advocated for affordable housing and health care for residents, as well as gun safety.
On the topic of health care, Arnie Graf, former co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, an advocacy group, thanked the crowd for lobbying over the years for increasing access to medical care in Massachusetts.
Their efforts helped one woman he came to know through his advocacy work get life-saving cancer treatment, he said.
“Thank you, GBIO, for that gift to her and to all the people who now have health care,” Graf said to the interfaith organization.
On the issue of housing, City Councilor Tito Jackson and others urged the crowd to vote for a measure on the November ballot that would have Boston participate in the Community Preservation Act.
The act, passed in 2000, allows cities and towns to add a surcharge to their property taxes to pay for affordable housing, parks and recreation, and historic preservation.
Jackson and two of his colleagues on the council, Michael Flaherty and Michelle Wu, urged the crowd to rally their friends and neighbors to support the measure.
“Faith without works is dead,” Jackson said, quoting Scripture to applause in the packed church.Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.