Jamaica Plain Gazette
Pivotal moment for criminal justice reform

By Sonia Chang-Díaz | Oct 27, 2017

Thanks to years of significant public pressure, the state legislature is now preparing to take action on criminal justice reform. This is a pivotal moment, and it may not come again for many years.

The State Senate recently released a much-anticipated criminal justice reform package, to be voted upon by the end of the month. It doesn’t go as far as other states on community reinvestment or repealing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses. But it’s a sincere compromise, with solid reform elements and comprehensive breadth. It will unquestionably make our justice system fairer and more effective.

Over the last 40 years we gave huge power to District Attorneys in sentencing – and with it they oversaw a system that grew into a costly, ineffective, and racist mess. Today, Massachusetts locks up more than five times the number of people we incarcerated in the 1970s. Our state ranks in the top 15 percent highest incarceration rates compared to other nations. And, insidiously, while black and Latino people make up less than one-fifth of the total state population, they make up 75 percent of those who get mandatory minimum drug sentences.

In my district, I see whole city blocks where families are eroded from their full strength because brothers, mothers, fathers, sisters are gone for years at a time, and come back more broken than they went in. We also suffer mightily from the drug trade in Boston. But has the quintupling of our jailed population in Massachusetts solved that problem?

Then there are the monetary costs. On any given day, there are approximately 20,000 people incarcerated in the Commonwealth. You and I spend $53,000 per inmate per year to house these men and women.

These policies – so expensive in dollars and human lives – have little to show for themselves in terms of safety outcomes. More than 40 percent of former inmates re-offend after they are released and drug addiction is no less prevalent since these policies began 40 years ago. Saying “we’re getting tough on those drug dealers” feels good politically, but it does nothing to solve the actual problem.

Our state is wasting precious resources on a system that isn’t just and doesn’t work. Yet there are fairer, more effective options. We can return authority to judges to consider the facts of each case, and equip them with more tools to divert those who need it to treatment and rehab. We can use public resources responsibly, on those sentences and programs that fit the crime and that prevent crime where we know we can. We can save millions of dollars, and re-deploy those savings to ensure our neighborhoods are well-served when ex-offenders return to them.

For years, grassroots activists and their allies in the State House have advocated for these crucial reforms. For years, we have been told to wait.

We can’t wait anymore.

I urge you to be impatient and hold your elected officials accountable–for delivering not just half-measures that provide political cover but leave fundamental problems in place, but true reform.

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