Black and Latino lawmakers want delay in justice report
The state’s black and Latino lawmakers have called for a delay to this week’s long-awaited release of a report recommending reforms to Massachusetts’ criminal justice system, saying more work needs to be done to study sentencing reform and its impact on people of color.
In a letter to the heads of a Justice Reinvestment Steering Committee, the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus asked that the final release of the report be pushed back a month to January so that the report’s authors can consider their input at a public meeting scheduled for Wednesday, when the report is slated to be released.
“The report must include meaningful components of sentencing reform,” stated the letter, which was sent Dec. 16.
The Steering Committee members are Governor Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants.
Spokespeople for each of them said they would not comment, referring to past statements that the process is ongoing and that they welcome outside input.
The caucus is the latest group to voice concerns that a Justice Reinvestment analysis and report the state is conducting in partnership with the Council of State Governments — a nonprofit that helps states craft public policy — will not go far enough in recommending true reform of the criminal justice system, specifically changes to sentencing, such as ending mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
The analysis was commissioned last year amid repeated calls from criminal justice advocates and community groups who said the outdated state justice system was built around failed tough-on-crime policies of the past and needs to be overhauled.
Among other proposed measures, advocates for reform have called for an end to mandatory-minimum punishments, saying they disproportionately affect communities of color; more funding for alternatives to prison and for rehabilitation programs; and improvements to the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system that will help ex-offenders quality for jobs.
They are concerned that the report set to be unveiled at Wednesday’s meeting will not include those proposals, and will recommend changes only to the probation and parole systems.
Last week, community advocates rallied at the State House to demand broader changes, and earlier this month the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Massachusetts sent a letter to the steering committee members asking that the planned overhaul include sentencing reform.
In the Dec. 16 letter, signed by 13 state legislators, the caucus raised the same concerns.
“Sentencing is an integral phase of the justice system and defines both the human and financial costs for every subsequent phase” of the system, the letter stated. “Its exclusion from the most comprehensive criminal justice reform initiative our Commonwealth has ever undertaken undermines the credibility of all who have worked for it — our members included — as well as the potential for positive outcomes from it.”
The letter added that the failure to address sentencing reform is a “missed opportunity” to address mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases, “which have well-documented, disparate impacts on racial and ethnic minorities.”
According to the letter, black and Latino residents account for more than half of those in the state’s houses of correction and prisons, and three-quarters of those convicted of drug offenses that carry mandatory-minimum sentences, though blacks and Latinos make up just under one-fifth of the state’s total population.
“Mandatory minimums are a relic of a by-gone era in which punishment, and not public safety or public health, was the top priority,” the letter stated. “They tie the hands of our judges and drain our Commonwealth’s coffers, while producing no measurable benefits to public safety.”
The letter added, “Meaningful reinvestment requires that we do away with these biased and ineffective mechanisms, directing our resources instead toward policies that are proven to protect the public and better prepare our residents for success.”