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State hears criminal justice reform advocates

Proposed bills affect sentencing, records

Jule Pattison-Gordon
State hears criminal justice reform advocates
Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz gave testimony on criminal justice reforms, accompanied by Rep. Mary Keefe. Ben Forman of MassINC stands in back.

State legislators, activists, affected individuals and criminal justice professionals came before the state’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary on Monday to testify on an array criminal justice reform proposals.

Among those giving testimony were Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Rep. Mary Keefe, who called for passage of an omnibus bill whose elements would repeal mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses, reduce some felonies to misdemeanors, raise the felony threshold for larceny, create a medical parole pathway for inmates who are terminally ill or dying and implement CORI reforms. Any criminal justice system savings would go into a fund for investment into education and workforce development programs.

Chang-Diaz argued that the state has stalled in analysis for several years and said enacting the full reform package is critical to making a real difference.

“Our state is wasting precious resources on a system that isn’t just and doesn’t work,” Chang-Diaz said. “We need to stop doing harm to the very communities we say we are trying to protect.”

Idris Adbullah, a Teens Leading the Way member from Dorchester, spoke on the importance of juvenile record expungement so that youth offenders can move on with their lives after serving their time and not face a permanent stigma. Accompanying him are (left) Jefferson Alvarez, UTEC member from Lawrence, and (right) Chaurice McMillan, a Teens Leading the Way member from Mattapan.

Mandatory minimums

Supporters of mandatory minimum sentencing repeal say that while such laws may have been intended to prevent inequities in the criminal justice system, they now are creating it.

For instance, offenses that carry mandatory minimums disproportionately impact black and Latino residents. Chang-Diaz said that while black and Latino people make up half of those incarcerated for drug crimes that do not carry mandatory minimums, they constitute three-quarters of those carrying drug sentences with mandatory minimums. Federal data show racial disparities in the kinds of charges given, with black defendants almost twice as likely as whites who were arrested for the same crime to be charged with a mandatory minimum sentence, said Ben Forman, research director of MassINC. Mandatory sentencing then prevents judges from being able to correct for any potential bias in the charging, he said. Chang-Diaz added that the purpose of having judges is that they are believed to be able to make judgment calls, and so should be permitted to do so.

Tough-on-crime policies also can hinder a community’s economic development, in part by depleting the population of working adults and by channeling public money into the criminal justice system over other worthy programs. Forman said over-incarceration in some neighborhoods can result in more crime.

“In urban neighborhoods with high levels of incarceration, we’ve reached a tipping point where more incarceration makes less public safety, not more,” Forman added.

However, a trio of district attorneys representing Plymouth, Worcester and Norfolk counties pushed back, saying that mandatory minimums were implemented to ensure sentencing uniformity and primarily affect dangerous drug traffickers, while drug users are directed into treatment.

“These aren’t people who need treatment, these are people bringing poison into the neighborhoods and profiting off that,” Joseph Early, Jr. of Worcester said.

“Mandatory minimums are critical to protect the public safety of all citizens,” said Tim Cruz of Plymouth.

Judiciary Committee member Michael Day said there is an argument that decisions on who should get treatment and who should be sentenced should be left to judges instead of district attorneys, whose decisions may be seen as politically motivated. One district attorney stated that, historically, judges have not always sentenced properly, and defendants often would try to get their cases heard by judges known to be sympathetic.

Criminal records

Among those giving testimony was a woman who has a felony on her record for receiving stolen property worth a little more than $250. Such an offense remains on her record for ten years, and is a major barrier to her life and employment abilities, she said.

“I am a nursing assistant by trade, CPR-certified, medically certified, but I cannot get a job in any hospital right now because of my felony [which is not sealable until 2019],” she said, adding that while she is working on her RN qualification at a community college now, her record prevents her from applying to continue the program at another institution. “It is too long of a waiting period. I did my time: I served, I was on probation. However, I am still being punished.”

Advocates call for allowing felonies to be sealed after seven years, down from ten years, and misdemeanors to be sealed after three years instead of five years. Many also call for increasing the property value level at which a theft is considered a felony from $250, where it was set 30 years ago, to $1,500.

Jefferson Alvarez, a 21-year-old member of UTEC, advocated for the ability to expunge juvenile records. He said his life took a wrong turn seven years ago, when he was arrested on the verge of a fight as a high school freshman. Police arrived before the altercation turned physical, he said. He was removed from school and placed into an alternative school, where fights and arrests continued, he said. Now he has learned better and is trying to turn his life around, but his record holds him back, he said.

“What if I wanted to be a foster parent or run a day care?” Alvarez said. “Because of one mistake in my life [I can’t].”

Criminal records also can be a barrier to living in public housing, attaining employment and higher education.

Other measures

Members of Jobs Not Jails and other supporters also argued for reducing collateral fees on those released from incarceration, such as the $65 per month probation fee, so that released individuals are not financially burdened as they try to get on their feet again.

Activists also called for raising the age at which people are tried as juveniles to age 21 (save for in cases of severe violent crimes), as the brain continues to develop into one’s mid-20s. Lael Chester, a research fellow from Harvard Law School’s criminal justice program, said as youth mature, many age out of crime by their mid-20s. She noted that allowing young adults into the juvenile system instead of the adult system means they do not lose eligibility to receive Pell Grants for higher education, making it easier to turn their lives around. Sen. Karen Spilka said that when the age at which a person was considered a juvenile was raised from 17 to 18, juvenile crime declined.

Others called for changing the bail system so bail is only set for those considered unlikely to show up in court. That would prevent people being locked up while waiting for trial solely because of inability to afford the bail fee. Under the current system, “25 percent of the incarcerated population has not been found guilty,” said Sen. Pat Jehlen.

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