Criminal justice reform activists lobby for bill passage
On the first day of November, several days after the Senate passed a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill, supporters of the legislation rallied and lobbied in the Massachusetts State House to continue the bill’s momentum in the House.
The fervent event was organized by EPOCA, or Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement, as part of their Jobs not Jails movement.
“This reform bill will reduce the number of people who are unjustly sent to prison,” said Elena Letona, executive director of Neighbor to Neighbor. “And the majority of those people are black and brown.”
The current reform bill, as passed by the Senate, will repeal mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses; raise the age of criminal majority to 19; eliminate fees for indigent defendants and license suspensions for offenses not related to driving; allow access to showers, books and mental health evaluations for solitary confinement prisoners; raise the threshold for charging someone with larceny from $250 to $1,500; and redirect savings from expected reduction in state’s prison population towards drug treatment, job training and rehabilitation for those leaving prison.
According to the bill, these changes would be retroactive, giving some minor drug offenders a chance for early release.
Activists are also fighting to include CORI reforms, such as permitting people with sealed CORIS to say “I have no record” when applying for occupational licenses and housing after records are sealed. Under the current law, only people who are applying to jobs can do this.
As the bill is taken up in the House, proponents of the bill are preparing to face more conservative opposition from state representatives. Governor Charlie Baker proposed in August longer sentences for drug dealers who sell products that kill users. This amendment was altered to include only traffickers selling large amounts of drugs like the synthetic opioid fentanyl and heroin.
“Petty dealers and drug addicts themselves can count as traffickers,” said Calvin Feliciano, political director for SEIU 509 in a phone call with the Banner. “Many times a drug addict supporting their own habit can be caught with 11 packets of something and be charged as a drug trafficker, and that is one of our concerns.”
The late Jafet Robles, a community organizer for Neighbor to Neighbor from Springfield, was honored at the rally. His memory incensed and motivated the criminal justice reform advocates even more, his death a symbol of a failing criminal justice system. He was found shot and killed at a park in Chicopee.
His mother, Noemi Arguinzoni-Jimenez, spoke to the rally crowd about the last time she saw her son, a father of four, while spending time with him and her grandchildren at the park. “Just hours later, at that very same park, his life was taken away,” she said.
“I want us to celebrate his life, and his passion for his community and criminal justice reform,” said Arguinzoni-Jimenez. “Justice reform is about [solving] the greater cycles of poverty and homelessness.”
Also joining the cause is Adam Gomez, Springfield city councilor and a member of Neighbor to Neighbor. Gomez was charged as an adult for marijuana possession when he was 17 years old. “I was forced to plead guilty and had to serve the mandatory 2 year sentence,” he said. “I lost my license and financial aid to college.”
Years later, in 2015, Gomez joined Neighbor to Neighbor in an 80-day campaign to stop the development of a mandatory alcohol treatment center in Springfield, what Gomez described would be “like a jail.”
The campaign was successful in blocking the alcohol treatment center and Gomez ran for city council that same year.
“Criminal justice reform is about getting people back to work,” said Kevin Lynch, a member of EPOCA. “[Reforming CORI] eliminates the need for so many social services because you’re letting people obtain the skill sets they need to succeed.”
SEIU 509’s Feliciano said, “Opponents of the bill think you need to be able to sentence people to 10 years for drug crimes to keep people safe. They use scare tactics.”
But moving people towards treatment would, “actually solve the problem,” Feliciano said, “as opposed to sweeping people up and sending them to jail.”