How far should state leaders go in reforming justice?
A Jamaica Plain state senator who represents a diverse swath of Boston ripped into Beacon Hill leaders Monday for dragging their feet on reforming the state’s criminal justice system and called on them to “give people a fair shot at justice.”
For more than four years, state leaders have promised to reform mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses but have not delivered on those pledges, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz said at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast in Boston Monday morning.
“Perhaps it is easy, when it isn’t your life on the line, when it isn’t your child, your neighbor, your constituent, to say wait,” Chang-Diaz said, in an apparent knock at the white men who largely run Massachusetts state government.
But, the Democratic senator said, it is different when you have seen entire city blocks where not a single household has been untouched by the criminal justice system, where families are torn apart with a parent or brother or son in jail, where teachers are forced to take on the roles of parent, social worker, amd trauma counselor because so many children don’t have a full support system at home.
“I’m done waiting,” Chang-Diaz said in an unusually direct rebuke from a legislator aimed at the people who control what ideas become law.
“My brothers and sisters in the Legislature, we have been patient long enough. The time is ripe to do right on true criminal justice reform. To my brothers and sisters in this room: The time is ripe to exact accountability from your elected leaders and push us to live up to our promises — not with a half measure, but a full one,” she told most of the state’s top political leaders and hundreds of other attendees munching on breakfast at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.
“And to our friends the governor, the speaker, and the Senate president: The time is ripe to stop your waiting, too, and to live up to your word!” she said to loud applause and cheers.
Chang-Diaz, a Latina woman, represents all or part of Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, the South End, Mission Hill, Mattapan, Hyde Park, Roslindale, and Dorchester.
Governor Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, and Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg are white men from, respectively, Swampscott, Winthrop, and Amherst.
The debate about how far to go in changing laws related to criminal justice is set to be one of the most contentious issues on Beacon Hill this year.
At the request of top state leaders, the nonprofit Council of State Governments studied the state’s criminal justice system and is readying a report focusing on changes Massachusetts could make. The report’s main thrust, at the request of leaders, is expected to be ways the state could reduce the number of incarcerated people who are released but then end up back in jail or prison. Recent state data showed that about 35 percent of people released in 2011 were back in the criminal justice system again within three years, according to a letter to the nonprofit from Baker, DeLeo, Rosenberg, and Ralph Gants, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.
Chang-Diaz said she feared the report would not include a recommendation to undo mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. And, she said, not rolling back some mandatory minimums would be at odds with elected leaders’ promises.
During his 2014 campaign for governor, on a candidate questionaire Baker circled “yes” in response to the question “Do you support the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses under Massachusetts law?” Baker amended that answer on the same questionaire by writing “I believe reforming minimum sentences could be part of an overall strategy to rethink how those with substance abuse issues are treated.”
The Legislature is expected to move on a yet-to-be-determined package of criminal justice changes, and that will probably include, but not be limited to, the guidance from the nonprofit.
The bill or bills could include adjustments to state laws on bail, mandatory minimum sentences, solitary confinement, prison programming, parole eligibility, and community supervision practices, but no specifics have been released.
Baker told reporters as he was leaving the breakfast that Massachusetts has “a long history, with respect to criminal justice, of being a progressive state. And we have always had a relatively low rate of incarceration, compared to other states.”
In 2015, Massachusetts had the second-lowest imprisonment rate, with 179 sentenced prisoners for every 100,000 people of any age, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Nationally, 458 prisoners were sentenced to more than one year in state or federal prison per 100,000 US residents.
Baker also said that since he took office in January 2015, the Department of Correction population has dropped by 1,300 inmates, out of starting population of about 11,000.
“I think Massachusetts has done a fine job on these issues, and we need to do more,” the Republican governor said.
In an e-mailed statement, Rosenberg said this legislative term, which runs through next year, is the time to pass “meaningful criminal justice reform.” He said the nonprofit’s report will not be the last word, but part of a larger law-making process. A spokesmen for DeLeo declined to comment on Chang-Diaz’s speech.
Rosenberg has called for ending mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, while DeLeo has been more circumspect. The 40-member Senate is widely seen as more liberal than the 160-member House of Representatives.
Some legislators are cautious about too much tinkering. They see the current criminal justice system as, for the most part, effective. And many do not want to be — or be perceived as — soft on crime.