Monday, January 16, 2017
Mass. state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz chides Beacon Hill leaders for waiting to pass sentencing reform

BOSTON - Mass. state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz on Monday admonished Gov. Charlie Baker and top Beacon Hill lawmakers, saying they've moved too slowly on a promised overhaul of the state's criminal justice system.

"I'm done waiting," she said while addressing a crowd gathered inside the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center for a breakfast celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr.

Gov. Baker sat a few feet away as she spoke. "The time is ripe to stop your waiting too, and to live up to your word," she said, addressing him as well as top lawmakers who were not present.

Chang-Diaz -- a Democrat and a Latina who represents parts of Boston's Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Roxbury and Roslindale neighborhoods, among others -- noted that lawmakers passed a "three strikes" bill in 2012, increasing penalties and lengths of sentences for a number of crimes.

Then-Gov. Deval Patrick signed the bill, but he said Democratic leaders on Beacon Hill had pledged to return to mandatory minimum sentencing issues. That hasn't happened.

When Baker ran for governor in 2014, he supported repealing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses, Chang-Diaz said. Baker took office in 2015.

"Massachusetts has a long history, with respect to criminal justice, of being a progressive state," Baker said when asked to respond to Chang-Diaz's comments. "We have always had a relatively low rate of incarceration compared to other states, and at this point in time, I think we probably have the lowest or the second lowest rate of incarceration in the country."

He added that since he took office, the Department of Correction population has dropped by 1,300 inmates, or 13 percent reduction, out of a starting population of 11,000 inmates.

Baker credited state programs, as well as education and training for when they're released back into communities.

"I think Massachusetts has done a fine job on these issues and we need to do more," Baker said.

According to Chang-Diaz, top lawmakers asked for a working group to issue recommendations for potential reforms, but the group as it wraps up its work appears unlikely to wade into sentencing reform or "racial bias," leading to more time spent waiting as more people are sent to jail for non-violent crimes.

"Perhaps it is easy, when it isn't your life on the line, when it isn't your child, your neighbor, your constituent, to say wait," Chang-Diaz said.

Quoting Dr. King, she added, "In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

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