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Coalition pushing for criminal justice reform

Martin Desmarais

Prison reform advocates in the state are gearing up for a busy month. The Jobs Not Jails Coalition has a Boston rally planned on April 26 and will return four days later to present a petition to Massachusetts Legislature — all the efforts targeted to show decision-makers the groundswell of support to change prison policy.

The Jobs Not Jails campaign is rallying around estimates from Gov. Deval Patrick’s office that the state will spend $2 billion by 2020 to build 10,000 new prison units, as well as $150 million each year to fill them. In addition, Massachusetts has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world and more than 60 percent of prisoners released from the jails in the state re-offend within three years. All these stats are facts that Jobs Not Jails coalition members decry as unacceptable.

Jobs Not Jails is pushing for a reduction in prison spending and funneling the resulting savings into jobs and employment programs that can help the formerly incarcerated during re-entry into the working world and help reduce recidivism rates in the state.

What coalition members are calling for is not unprecedented because others states — including New York, Washington and Texas — have overhauled their criminal justice systems and thus reduced prison populations, closed prisons and saved taxpayers billions of dollars.

The prison reforms that drive Jobs Not Jails include: ending mandatory minimum drug sentences; diversion of low-level drug offenders to treatment even before trial; eliminating counter-productive “collateral sanctions” such as an automatic driver’s license suspension for drug offenses, and high fees for probation, parole, court costs and telephone charges; reforming the systems of parole and probation; bail reform; restoring educational programs including vocational education as well as college-level courses in prisons and jails.

According to Steve O’Neill, executive director of Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, many of these reforms are already on the table in Massachusetts, so the hope is that the rally and petition can help push legislators to move forward on them.

O’Neill said that his Worcester-based organization, known as EPOCA, which has 300 members, 2,500 associate members and is a lead organizer of Jobs Not Jails, has been unable to garner sufficient attention from lawmakers in the past. Bringing together organizations from across the state was done with the hope to have more of an impact with greater numbers.

“Any kind of issues that we would raise that would cost state money we would get blowback from the Legislature, and they say there is no money,” O’Neill said. “To win those kinds of causes, the really deep-seated, deep-rooted flaws in our system, we knew it was going to take something much louder than our voices. It was going to take a much louder public outcry.”

The Jobs Not Jails rally set for Boston Common on April 26 is planned to be the first big demonstration of this year. Jobs Not Jails brings together over 80 organizations from across the state, so organizers expect at least 4,000 people to attend. The groups range from nonprofits that support the formerly incarcerated to family service providers to religious organizations to lawyers’ guilds.

On April 30, a smaller group will go to the State House and publicly present a petition calling for criminal justice reform, halting the construction of new prison units until reform is in place and re-directing the $2 billion planned for prison expansion into a jobs program.

According to O’Neill the petition drive is on track to hit at least 25,000 signatures by the end of this month.

The combination of the Jobs Not Jails supporting organizations and those signing the petition are numbers that organizers believe will be enough to finally make lawmakers take notice, as well as back upcoming lobbying efforts as the Legislature winds down for the year.

“This may be a historic movement where you can push through some much broader changes,” O’Neill said.

“We are hoping that it does catch their attention,” added Benito Vega, president of the EPOCA Board of Directors. “The ones that are not on board, once they see these thousands of people at the State House, they will understand the support behind this.”

Andrea James, a lead organizer for the Roxbury-based Families for Justice and Healing, said that her organization supports Jobs Not Jails because its aims are in line with her group’s efforts to raise awareness about the rising incarceration rates of women and to lobby for criminal justice policy changes.

“It is creating a platform for those of us that are doing legislative advocacy type of work to really have our voices heard,” James said. “It is a no-brainer for us because it is what we are talking about. We want to use our voices as formerly incarcerated women across the Commonwealth to say we can do better here in Massachusetts.”

She has high expectations for the April 26 rally as well.

“What is most important is that the Jobs not Jails rally is going to bring together all the constituents from across the Commonwealth who really believe we have to stop incarcerating people right now,” James added. “It is bringing people together to take a really clear look at the facts about what has to happen.”

Another group involved in Jobs Not Jails is the Grove Hall-based Boston Workers’ Alliance. The organization provides free services to those in need of employment and Criminal Offender Record Information assistance. While the Boston Workers’ Alliance is a service organization focusing on employment, it also does advocacy work and was part of the push that helped enact CORI reform.

Phillip Reason, the alliance’s director of organizing, said that what is important about Jobs Not Jails and the upcoming rally is that the efforts are educating people throughout the state and not just those who have been incarcerated or organizations that support ex-prisoners.

“Something like this campaign reaches out to those who have not been to prisons and helps them understand that building more prisons is not economically sound. It does not make sense,” Reason said. “This issue touches everybody.”

He also believes the petition can have a big impact on lawmakers.

“Once the legislators see the number of registered voters and see all the voters in their districts that have signed on to this we are hoping that folks will have some conversations about some of the bills that come across their desk in the House and the Senate and they can be voted on favorably,” Reason added. “We have a host of bills coming through the house this summer and we believe some of these bills can go on to remedy, some of these issues that we are talking about.”