Saturday, December 17, 2016
Catholic bishops join push to overhaul state sentencing

The state’s Roman Catholic leaders are adding their voices to calls for broad changes in the criminal justice system, amid concerns that an overhaul now being devised will not go far enough.

The advocates are concerned that an independent review of the state’s justice system by the Council of State Governments, a nonprofit group that aids state officials in crafting public policy, will not address mandatory minimum sentences or include alternatives to lengthy prison sentences for nonviolent crimes.

Commissioned by elected officials and the state’s courts, the review is meant to serve as the blueprint for legislation that could be announced in January. Advocates who have worked with the council and state officials said they fear the review, and the subsequent legislation, will address only the state parole and probation systems but not changes such as ending mandatory minimum sentences.

Earlier this month, the Roman Catholic bishops and archbishop in Massachusetts sent a letter to legislative leaders and Governor Charlie Baker calling for broader changes. Advocates rallied at the State House last week.

“We felt the need to sound the alarm,” said Lewis Finfer, director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, a community group that is advocating for broader changes. “The system is really broken. If you’re looking at criminal justice and not focusing on sentencing . . . you’re only looking at a small part of criminal justice reform.”

The Rev. Frank Cloherty, a Catholic priest from Lynn who works with community groups, urged the Massachusetts Catholic Conference to send the letter from the bishops to legislators, saying the church should take a stand on a key social justice issue. “We need to have an equitable justice system,” he said. “We should be helping these people.”

Recent research shows that the tough-on-crime policies of the past — such as mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses — have failed to reduce crime and resulted in skyrocketing prison costs.

Researchers have also found that lengthy sentences disproportionately affect people of color and their communities.

Beacon Hill has been cool to criminal justice system changes, and Baker has argued that the state’s incarceration rate is low. But last year, Baker, the state Senate and House, and the court officials agreed to jointly participate in a “justice reinvestment” initiative to be conducted by the Council of State Governments. The state then set up a working group of legislators, law enforcement officials, and criminal justice advocates to work with the council.

The council has a public meeting slated for 1 p.m. Wednesday at One Ashburton Place, and the group is expected to discuss its final recommendations at that time. On Friday, representatives of Baker and House Speaker Robert DeLeo did not address the concerns raised by advocates and the bishops but said the elected officials are awaiting the review.

Ralph Gants, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, who represents the court system and has called for the same types of changes as the criminal justice advocates, welcomed the encouragement from the bishops and the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, saying, “I know they give voice to a moral and benevolent vision, and to the universal desire for justice.”

Gants has already called for an end to mandatory minimum sentences and in October said he had commissioned a study into the state’s disproportionate incarceration of minorities and people of color.

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg has been one of the most outspoken state officials on the issue but said Friday that the purpose of the report process was to find consensus, and that other issues outside of that consensus can still be addressed. “We have a broad set of changes in mind,” he said. “We are looking at a continuum, both from finding ways to reduce incarceration to finding ways to prevent incarceration.”

But advocates fear that any overhaul will be dictated by the limited recommendations contained in the council report. In January, the council released findings that the state had a low rate of supervising people who are released from prison on probation or parole, and the focus on overhauling those systems is likely based on those findings.

Among the changes that advocates fear will not be addressed are: an end to mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses; the creation of and funding for diversion “treatment” programs as alternatives to imprisonment; and more funding for drug abuse and mental health services, education, and job training.

Advocates said they would also like to see changes to the Criminal Offender Record Information, or CORI, system to limit the amount of time that a criminal record is available for background checks that can be viewed by employers, and a higher threshold for which a defendant could be convicted of felony theft.

State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Democrat who represents parts of Boston, said failing to adopt broad reforms now will be a missed opportunity. She echoed Rosenberg that the Legislature can still consider changes that aren’t recommended in the council report, but she said the report will lose credibility if it fails to make recommendations on the key issue of sentencing. “It’s crazy for us to undertake any type of criminal justice reform initiative without including sentencing reform. Sentencing reform is square one in criminal justice reform,” Chang-Díaz said.

She added, “It would really come as a surprise to so many people if this report doesn’t include some commentary, some research, some recommendation on the topic of sentencing reform because so many people thought it would.”

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