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Senate president stresses criminal justice reform, income disparity

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg called for reforming the state’s criminal justice system and tackling “the gnawing disparity” in incomes in Massachusetts.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg called for reforming the state’s criminal justice system and tackling “the gnawing disparity” in incomes in Massachusetts.

Firmly staking out liberal ground after being reelected to his chamber’s highest post, Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg on Wednesday called for reforming the state’s criminal justice system and tackling “the gnawing disparity” in incomes in Massachusetts — through raising taxes on the rich and policies such as boosting the state minimum wage and mandating paid family leave to help the poor and the middle class.

“Some believe we can continue to cut our way to success. I do not,” Rosenberg told a packed chamber after the pomp and circumstance of Governor Charlie Baker swearing in all 40 senators. “I believe we need to invest our way to success.”

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Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, called for “looking for new revenues,” a euphemism for raising taxes. Among his ideas: taxing Airbnb Inc. and similar online home-rental services and closing tax loopholes created in the past but no longer serving a purpose for the state.

Rosenberg’s remarks took place on the opening day of the 2017 Massachusetts legislative session. House lawmakers were sworn in, as well; House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, who was reelected to that chamber’s top post, did not give a similar policy-laden speech on Wednesday.

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The Senate president, who often is at odds with the more conservative DeLeo and Baker, a Republican, also voiced support for an expected 2018 constitutional amendment referendum — given a preliminary green light by the Legislature last year — to raise taxes on millionaires and funnel that cash to transportation and education.

Rosenberg also spoke about troubles with the state budget. Despite a moderately strong economy and historically low unemployment, the state has pinballed from one fiscal gap to another, with three rounds of unilateral emergency cuts by Baker since he took office in 2015.

In his remarks, the Senate president emphasized Massachusetts policy makers must be fiscally responsible. But, he said, instead of slicing programs, the state needs to make wide-ranging reforms, including to the state’s criminal justice system.

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Right now, Rosenberg said, “we spend more than $1.3 billion to run correctional facilities — more than we spend on all of higher education.

“And what has all this locking up people done for us, besides put an enormous strain on our budget? Very little. Right now, about two-thirds of those who leave our prisons return to the system within five years.

“And yet, in the neighborhoods most riddled with crime, the streets remain frighteningly unsafe. We’ve been tough on crime; now we need to get smart on crime.”

The Senate president spoke about ramping up programs that divert offenders from incarceration, ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, and helping people in jail who struggle with mental illness.

“We should reform our bail system; we should shift away from a focus on long sentences” and toward helping offenders reenter society successfully “so they never go back to prison again,” he said.

An outside nonprofit is poised to deliver recommendations on how lawmakers can reform specific aspects of the state’s criminal justice system. Movement on the issue is expected in the Legislature after that report becomes public.

Rosenberg, 67, became the first Jewish and openly gay Senate president when his colleagues elected him in 2015.

A longtime political insider, he will mark his 30th year in the Massachusetts Legislature this year.

In the House’s last legislative session, DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, led the charge to do away with term limits on the speakership.

He can be reelected in perpetuity.

In brief remarks, DeLeo said that he was honored by state representatives’ support.

Joshua Miller can be reachedat joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos and subscribe to his weekday e-mail update on politics at bostonglobe.com/politicalhappyhour.
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