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Community seeks say in likely state criminal justice reforms

Activists convene first “Stuck on Replay” event

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Community seeks say in likely state criminal justice reforms
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, Roca’s Boston Director Shannon McAuliffe and ACLU of MA’s Rashaan Hall spoke on criminal justice reform at the first Stuck on Replay event, held outside Haley House Cafe in Roxbury.

Youth and community activists gathered at Roxbury’s Haley House last Thursday to inject their voices into a criminal justice conversation that is expected to lead to new state legislation.

Opportunity Youth United’s Boston Community Action Team, in partnership with Teen Empowerment and MassINC, convened the first of three events in its “Stuck on Replay” series. The series aims to humanize a discussion that, organizers say, too often regards mass incarceration through a lens of statistics and data, without acknowledging the impact on families and individual lives.

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Stuck on Replay’s launch was timed to coincide with a larger process: An initiative guided by a national nonprofit and state officials is expected to submit recommendations to the Massachusetts legislature in January 2017 on reforms it can take to reduce criminal justice spending, as well as strategies for reinvesting subsequent savings to reduce recidivism and increase public safety. The Council of State Governments Justice Center, working with local teams, is gathering data and will begin discussing policy options in October.

However, the CSG Justice Center’s analysis is lacking, Rahsaan Hall director of the Racial Justice Program for the ACLU of Massachusetts, told Stuck on Replay attendees. The group does not examine racial disparities and its reform recommendations focus on after-the-fact recidivism reduction measures, without including advice on preemptive steps to reduce incarceration. The local CSG Justice Center team also does not have sufficient representation of people of color or local community members’ experiences said Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and James Mackey, community organizer and coordinator for OYU-BCAT.

The OYU event announcement called for community members to come together to identify their needs and desires, in preparation for evaluating the CSG Justice Center’s recommendations.

“These recommendations will be implemented without the communities it’s affecting the most if we just allow it to happen,” the announcement stated.

Attendees also were urged to express their wants to policymakers, to ensure that any new laws impacting the community reflect its needs.

Council of State Governments

As part of a federal Justice Reinvestment Initiative, the CSG Justice Center solicits opinions from those whose work connects with the criminal justice system, such as law enforcement, judges, victim advocates and local officials, and collects and analyzes a broad range of related data. From this, and with guidance from a local steering committee and working group, the team develops policy proposals for increasing public safety, improving supervision and reducing recidivism.

With Massachusetts’ five-member steering committee consisting of top state officials — Governor Charlie Baker, Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, Chief Justice Ralph Gants, Senate President Stan Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo — the proposed policy is likely to turn into legislation fairly quickly, Hall said.

Missing perspectives

As it stands, the CSG Justice Center process is worrisome, according to Hall and Chang-Diaz. For one, few people of color are represented on the local teams.

“It’s really problematic,” Chang-Diaz said. “There’re a lot of great people on those lists, but a lot of people are missing from those lists. Even if it’s not intentional, it’s glaring. That list doesn’t look anything like the people who are assembled here tonight.”

Hall said few, if any, people of color were among the members.

Additionally, CSG does not analyze data for racial disparities, yet people of color in Massachusetts are significantly overrepresented among the incarcerated population — and even more for so among the population incarcerated on mandatory minimum sentences.

“If we’re talking about changes to criminal justice system, but not talking about why racial disparities exist, there’s a problem,” Hall said.

Hall added that many valuable legislative bills that target issues such as racial profiling in police stops and mandatory minimum drug sentencing reform are prepared, but have been put on pause by legislators, pending CSG’s report. Community voice could reactivate them and help ensure these are passed.

Family impact

Among the most powerful ways to influence policymakers is show them who their laws will be impacting and how, Mackey said.

Speakers emphasized that individuals are not incarcerated in isolation. The impact ripples through their family and communities. For Mackey, the burden of a lengthy sentence given to his father deeply affected his own life. His father was sentenced before Mackey was born and only recently, 30 years later, has been released.

Several speakers described their shock as children when they realized for the first time that innocent people can go to jail. For one speaker, the moment came when her father was arrested and again, when her mother was incarcerated because officers mistook her for someone else, the speaker said.

Hajah McGee, who said her husband was serving a life sentence on a false conviction, told of the shame endured by family members who stand by incarcerated loved ones and the lack of support groups.

Those who chose could have their own stories recorded at the event or submit written testimony to be brought to policymakers’ attention.

Community recommendations

Hall, Chang-Diaz and others emphasized what they said was a lapse by the CSG team in not proposing preventative measures, bail reform or pretrial diversion.

Presenting their own recommendations, many attendees said that keeping youth out of the criminal justice system requires providing them with more opportunities, especially in neighborhoods lacking in resources. They suggested providing afterschool programs, meaningful youth jobs and leadership opportunities, as well as ensuring feedback from youth inform initiatives implemented on their behalf.

“Lack of employment and opportunity is usually what gets someone involved in the criminal justice system,” yet once they are released, they have even fewer opportunities, noted Malaysia Fuller-Staten, a youth organizer with Teen Empowerment.

Opportunities must be provided to individuals both upon release and from the first day of incarceration, several attendees said. Among other things, this means prisons with education offerings and well-stocked libraries.

Police-community relations

Abrigal Forrester, director of community action for Madison Park Development Corporation, highlighted the media’s negative portrayals of people of color as a force that primes police to view them as threats to officers’ safety, and thus react with force.

“Media and other mediums of exchange are creating bias and anxiety,” Forrester said. “We have to understand that they [police] also want to go back home. And in the moment they want to go back home they become trigger-happy.”

Attendees recommended further actions to build empathy, such as more dialogue sessions between police and community members, hiring officers who are from the communities they police and interaction between policymakers and the community that is not limited to times of crisis.

Be heard

Chang-Diaz encouraged attendees to bring concerns and specific requests for policy elements to elected officials, whether on social media or by phone, saying that such interaction is effective. If officials leave anything unanswered, contact them again in a few weeks, she said.