BOSTON – During a Joint Judiciary Committee public hearing today legislators, advocates, and community leaders joined together to push for comprehensive criminal justice reform measures that include Justice Reinvestment as a core tenet. Those present included Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz (Boston) and Representative Mary Keefe (Worcester) who spoke on their jointly filed bill, the Justice Reinvestment Act (S. 64/ H. 1429). Fran Fjana, attorney with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and representative from the Jobs Not Jails Coalition; Pastor Roland E. Cooper, Senior Associate Pastor of Jubilee Christian Church in Boston; and Reverend Paul R. Ford, Executive Director of the Boston Workers Alliance also spoke in support of the bill.
“Our corrections system is broken. Taxpayers are footing a bill of over $53,000 per inmate, per year, with few returns on that investment,” said Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz (D-Boston). “Meanwhile, the criminalization and mass incarceration of our citizenry over the last several decades, particularly in communities of color, has widened disparities in access and opportunity at every stage of the lifespan. It’s time to end practices that drain state coffers, fill our prisons, and devastate communities, and to reinvest in programs that offer pathways out of poverty.”
Incarceration is expensive, costing the Commonwealth $53,043 per inmate, per year, and comes with a 20% recidivism rate during the first year of release. It also disproportionately impacts Black and Latino communities, who comprise just under one fifth of the total state population, but over half of the inmate population in Department of Corrections (DOC) custody.
“Policies from the failed War on Drugs have been disrupting communities, destroying families, and wasting taxpayer dollars for years. Massachusetts voters have told us time and time again that they don’t want their tax dollars wasted on punishing addicts, and instead want their government to focus on growing the economy and creating good jobs,” said Representative Mary Keefe (D-Worcester). “However, Massachusetts currently spends more than 570 million for the Department of Corrections operating budget and only 13 million for the Department of Early and Childhood Education. We need to move away from spending large portions of the state budget on increasing our prison and jail capacity, and start investing in programs that prevent people from committing crimes and going to prison in the first place. Justice Reinvestment ensures that we are focused on the priorities that the voters have demanded.”
The Justice Reinvestment Act seeks to address these economic and racial imbalances in the state’s criminal justice system. It includes four primary reforms in criminal sanctions:
• the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes;
• a reduction in certain non-violent felonies (e.g. shoplifting and larceny) to misdemeanors with shorter terms of incarceration;
• the creation of medical parole regulations for inmates who are terminally ill or permanently incapacitated; and
• the elimination of automatic collateral sanctions at the RMV for drug related offences that are unrelated to operating a vehicle.
What sets the Justice Reinvestment Act apart from many criminal justice reform measures is that it also requires the savings accrued from these sentencing and reentry reforms to be calculated, tracked, and reinvested into community education and workforce development programs.
“The reforms proposed in the Justice Reinvestment Act could save the Commonwealth over $110 million, diminish racial disparities through repeal of mandatory minimum drug sentences, and promote reintegration of those processed through the system,” said Fran Fjana, representative from the Jobs Not Jails Coalition. “And changing the felony larceny threshold amount is a long overdue reform. Connecticut's threshold amount is $2,000, Rhode Island is $1,500 while Massachusetts is $250, the third lowest in the country."
“The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The vast majority of those incarcerated are Black and Latino. Even in our own state, communities of color are paying a higher price for crime than are other communities,” said Pastor Roland E. Cooper, Senior Associate Pastor at Jubilee Christian Church in Boston. “I recently wrote a letter of recommendation for a young man who had been incarcerated, but who is now back home and trying to get a job. His record was an obstacle, but he was also unable to get a driver’s license, and so he was also unable to take care of his family. When a young man is locked away, it’s an expense on all of us. His family, his congregation, his community, all of us pay a price. When he comes home, the young man and his community continue to pay a price because there are so many barriers to getting and staying on the right path.”
“Fighting for reforms to the criminal justice system has been a fundamental piece of the Boston Workers Alliance mission, since our founding in 2005,” said Reverend Paul R. Ford, Executive Director of the Boston Workers Alliance. “We work to empower the men and women who have been incarcerated and are seeking to successfully reenter society. People need to be able to get good paying jobs, regardless of their backgrounds and past mistakes. We need to divest from mass incarceration and invest in workforce development and training. The Boston Workers Alliance established itself in the fight for CORI reform five years ago, and we see the Justice Reinvestment Act as a next step in the fight for justice for our communities and for our members.”