Senate Leaders Push Bill for Criminal Justice Reform

Massachusetts Statehouse. (Photo by Ana Goni-Lessan/BU News Service)

M.J. Tidwell
Boston University Statehouse Program

This article was also published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

BOSTON — “We need to lift people up instead of locking them up,” Sen. William Brownsberger, D-Belmont, said, as the crowd at the bottom of the grand staircase at the Statehouse whooped, cheered and applauded.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Brownsberger has proposed a large package of criminal justice reforms in a bill that Senate leaders are calling comprehensive and meaningful, though others say it doesn’t go far enough.

The bill is supported by western Massachusetts legislators Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, and Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who spoke at a press conference at the Statehouse Thursday, along with other lawmakers, community members and local organizations.

“When states like Texas, Alabama and Georgia are leading criminal justice reform, something is wrong with the picture,” Rosenberg said. “Many of these policies have not been reviewed or revised in generations. We need to sweep out the cobwebs.”

The bill’s proposals are wide-ranging, including the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for some drug-related offenses, such as dealing in a school zone; reducing the number of years until criminal records can be sealed; and making the sealing process more complete, so that records don’t show up to potential employers long after.

Though Massachusetts Department of Correction data show a 16 percent decrease in state prison populations over the last 10 years, Brownsberger said four or five times more people are incarcerated in Massachusetts now compared to 40 years ago, causing problems both for those in the system and for the system itself.

Rosenberg said the proposed legislation would result in better outcomes and better use of tax dollars, and cited the need to focus on mental health and substance abuse treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration.

He previously told the Boston Globe he is especially supportive of the legislation’s proposals to repeal many mandatory minimum sentences related to drug offenses and a proposal that would raise the age of criminal majority from 18 to 19, meaning 18-year-olds would be tried in juvenile court.

Hinds is also a strong supporter of the legislation’s juvenile justice reforms, making the push to change the criminal majority to 19 a key platform of his freshman year in office, as well as advocating for records reform.

Currently, someone can seal felony records after 10 years and misdemeanor records after five years, but according to Brownsberger, a trace of those records remains in the national fingerprint database.

If passed, the bill would allow felony records to be sealed after seven years and misdemeanor records after three, and it would make both available for national security checks but not viewable by potential employers.

As the former head of the Pittsfield Community Connection, an organization designed to help at-risk youth avoid falling into criminal activity, Hinds said it’s important to be aware of the damaging impact the treatment of records has on youth offenders.

“Sometimes incarceration is necessary,” Hinds said. “But it shouldn’t be the reason that someone who made a bad choice, or is struggling with addiction, is doomed for life.”

Reached for comment later Thursday, Hampshire County Sheriff Patrick Cahillane agreed that the time is right to consider many of the reforms proposed, particularly the issue of mandatory minimum sentences, which he said restrict treatment programs and workplace settings. He cautioned that a bill of this magnitude and complexity will take great consideration before being signed into action.

“I have looked at several areas that have a direct effect on the Jail and House of Corrections,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Gazette. “I am in agreement that these areas need to be seriously looked at in order to make sound public safety judgments, for all citizens of the commonwealth.”

Yet some say the sweeping reforms could be even larger. Sen. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, said she is still pushing to repeal all mandatory minimum sentences, rather than just those specific provisions in Brownsberger’s bill.

“Our justice system disproportionately affects low-income and impoverished communities. We must change everything,” Creem said.

However, she acknowledged that this package hits many points she has advocated for, like reforming solitary confinement processing and reporting.

James Mackey, the founder and organizer of #StuckOnReplay, a group focused on criminal justice reform for low-income communities, also said there are things that could have and should have been implemented in the legislation, but as it stands it is a “good” bill.

“This is an amazing opportunity to fix an incredibly unjust system,” he said. “But let’s not forget the underlying issues, like housing and employment, that put people in that system in the first place.”

The bill is expected to be amended and passed in the Senate, but the more conservative House is working to craft a parallel bill before Thanksgiving, where much of the language and outcomes have the potential to change.

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