Equality and Justice

Why is Criminal Justice Reform a Legislative Focus in 2017/18?

In the 1970’s and 1980’s the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts developed strong positions on our courts and corrections systems (1972-74, 1983-85), however since then our rate of incarceration has more than tripled.  Nationally, we incarcerate nearly 1 of every 100 adults in prison or jail, which is 5 to 10 times higher than other democracies.  And this burden falls disproportionately on young minority men, the impoverished, the mentally disabled, or those with drug and alcohol addictions.  This increase was not due to more criminality in the public but was due to policy changes.  It is our responsibility to undo these policy failures and now is the time.

In 2015, Governor Charlie Baker, Chief Justice Ralph Gants, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito invited the Council of State Governments to study our criminal justice system in Massachusetts and report on recommendations for legislative changes in January of 2017. Although the focus is on reducing recidivism there are many other aspects of reform that need to be addressed to be comprehensive.  The League is likely to support the proposed legislation that comes out of this process, but we will also need to continue to support legislation that is not included in the CSG bill.

In the 2015/16 legislative session, the Commonwealth passed new opioid legislation which focuses on treating opioid addiction primarily as a health issue rather than an issue of criminality. The League of Women Voters of Massachusetts supported legislation so that driver’s licenses are not automatically suspended for any drug offense not related to driving.  Fixing this law enables these returning citizens to become productive members of society.  We need to continue to assist our most vulnerable individuals in their steps to lead productive lives once their appropriate debt to society has been paid.

This session the League will continue to support bills to eliminate mandatory minimums, to increase the felony larceny level from $250 to a more reasonable level (like $2500 as in Texas), for pretrial and bail reform, for restorative justice, for presumptive parole, to restrict segregation or solitary confinement, and to expunge the records of persons falsely accused and juveniles.  We are also considering supporting legislation addressing the overuse of fines and fees, so we don’t have “debtor’s prisons”, and medical release of the seriously ill or elderly.

If you would like to learn more about criminal justice reform nationally or in Massachusetts, we have compiled a list of resources for all levels of interest.  If you are new to the issue and want an overview, check out the books listed in (1) or watch a program or listen to a podcast in (2).  To see the data for yourself or keeping up with the latest information, use the sources in (3). For more in depth reporting on Massachusetts, see the resources in (4).  And for in depth reporting on specific topics you can start with some of the information in (5).  And if your local League would like to learn about these bills, Colleen Kirby would be happy to give an informal talk on what we are focusing on for the 2017/18 session.

Did you know?  Facts about criminal injustice in Massachusetts
By Colleen Kirby, LWVMA criminal justice legislative specialist

These facts about the criminal justice system in Massachusetts illustrate the need for reform.

  • Two-thirds of Massachusetts residents prefer that fewer people are sent to jail instead of building new prisons.
  • Of the 23,000 people in the Massachusetts correctional system, 5,000 are held awaiting trial and many cannot be released because they cannot afford to pay bail.
  • Massachusetts confines individuals for longer stays now than for similar offenses in 1990.
  • Only Massachusetts and Arkansas segregate individuals in solitary confinement for up to 10 years for disciplinary infractions. Most states limit solitary to months.
  • From the state’s own prison data, as of January 2015, 95% of males incarcerated were serving a sentence longer than three years, yet one-third had not committed a violent offense.
  • The average cost per year is $53,040.87 to house a prisoner in Massachusetts.
  • 97% of all Massachusetts prisoners are eventually released.
  • People of color make up roughly 20% of the Massachusetts population yet comprise on average 77% of drug offenders sentenced to mandatory minimums each year, despite the fact that all races use drugs at the same rate.
  • One in 100 American adults are locked up, and our incarceration rate is about ten times higher than that of most European countries. Of the 2.3 million people in prison and jail today, nearly 40% of them are African-AmericanOne in 15 black children and one in 42 Latino children has a parent in prison, compared to one in 111 white children.

If you or your League wish to take action on criminal justice reform, please contact Colleen Kirby and Carolyn Lee at specialists@lwvma.org.

Here are some organizations in addition to LWVMA working on criminal justice reform in Massachusetts.