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Criminal Justice Reform Debated In Massachusetts

An exterior view of the Massachusetts State House in Boston

A debate over making substantial changes to the criminal justice system in Massachusetts began in earnest today as advocates for reform traveled to the statehouse to lobby legislators.

Busloads of activists from Springfield, Holyoke, Worcester and elsewhere traveled to the Statehouse in Boston Tuesday to rally and attend a legislative hearing in support of a bill to overhaul aspects of the state’s approach to crime.

" This is a good bill for every single  person in the state," said  Carlos Rodriguez, a community organizer with Neighbor to Neighbor in Holyoke, led one group of about two dozen advocates who traveled to Boston to lobby.

The centerpiece of the omnibus legislation calls for eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.  The bill proposes taking money saved by reducing the state’s prison population and reinvesting it in job training programs.

" If people are released from jail and put back to work it will mean more money for the state. It is good for everybody," said Rodriguez.

Advocates for reform point to recent national studies that found the application of mandatory minimum sentences during the last several decades has had little impact on lowering crime rates. They say the practice disproportionately targets people of color in low-income neighborhoods and incarcerations have become too great a financial burden on taxpayers.

Many people who made the trip to Boston had personal stories to tell. Noemi Arguinzoni of Springfield said her son was sent to prison for a drug offense.

" I know people should pay for what they do, but it was never a violent crime. What changed him was not being incarcerated, but there was a community organizer who focused on him and he went to college," she said.

Among those supporting the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences are Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants.

Opposition to the bill comes from the state’s district attorneys.  Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said it would be a mistake to eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences.

"  Because I think we are sending the wrong message during this opioid crisis that somebody with 500-2,000 bags of heroin doesn't face any consequences," he said.

The state’s top prosecutors say it is a myth that minimum mandatory sentences have resulted in the “mass incarceration” of non-violent drug offenders, as some reform advocates contend.  A report from the Massachusetts District Attorney Association said just 1 percent of the people convicted in 2013 were subject to a minimum mandatory sentence. The report said 73 percent of inmates doing time for a governing drug offense have a history of crimes involving firearms or violence.

" These minimum mandatories have not applied to drug users. It is applied to drug dealers who are profiting from the misery and deaths of others," said Sullivan

Another target of the criminal justice reformers is an automatic five-year driver’s license suspension for a drug conviction unrelated to operating a motor vehicle. There is also a proposal to overhaul bail procedures.

State Senate President Stan Rosenberg of Amherst is pushing for the justice reinvestment process that would reduce spending on corrections and put the money into crime prevention programs, according to the Boston Globe.   The paper reports it is unclear if House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Gov. Charlie Baker will support the legislation.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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