JP Progressives take on Criminal Justice Reform

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Report from the field  -- JPProgressives convened a community conversation on mass incarceration, following the lead of their chapter members. Engaging with neighbors, activists, advocates and legislators, JPP is doing the work of bending the arc towards justice. By joining the Jobs Not Jails coalition, the JP chapter of Progressive Mass will continue to represent progressive grassroots commitment to social justice, and help lead the organization to productive engagement and action. The chapter invites you to join the JNJ rally on Dec 13. More details are below.

Criminal Justice Reform is a core objective of our Progressive Platform. The Massachusetts Legislature will reconvene in January. Our Legislative Agenda will once again indicate which bills need our advocacy to get us closer to the goal of undoing the injustices of mass incarceration. Stay tuned for more from us on the legislative front. 


 More Than 150 Neighbors Attend Forum in Jamaica Plain to Discuss Mass Incarceration

This year, a standing room only crowd of nearly 200 people filled the First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain for a forum on the problem of mass incarceration.  The event was organized by JP Progressives, whose members had previously established mass incarceration as their top social concern.  The forum was co-sponsored by 10 other organizations, including the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation, the Mildred Hailey Tenant Organization, Black Lives Matter Boston, and the Jobs Not Jails Coalition.

The keynote speaker at the event was Rahsaan Hall, Director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program.

Mr. Hall pointed out that the United States has one of the highest incarceration rates of any country in the world and that, although the rate in Massachusetts is lower than in most states, it still compares to some of the worst rates internationally.  

In addition, Mr. Hall spoke about the extreme racial disparities in the application of our state criminal justice laws, with disparities in Massachusetts being worse than in many other states. He noted that in Massachusetts black and Latino incarceration rates are eight and six times higher respectively than for whites and, although blacks and whites use drugs at similar rates, the rate of black incarceration for drug crimes is significantly higher than for whites. Moreover, in some Massachusetts counties the median bail amount set for black defendants is four to five times higher than for whites. In June of 2015, for example, in Barnstable County, the median amount of bail set for blacks was $20,000 compared to only $5,000 for whites.

The forum included a panel comprised of State Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins, Boston Deputy Director of Public Safety Initiatives Conan Harris, and director of the Jobs Not Jails Coalition Lew Finfer.

Senator Chang-Díaz, who has led criminal justice reform legislation, spoke about the importance of current legislative initiatives.  Some of these bills include efforts to repeal mandatory minimum drug sentences, which often impose long sentences for relatively minor drug crimes with little discretion allowed to judges, and bail system reform, so that people who have not been convicted of a crime are not forced to spend weeks and months in prison because they cannot afford bail. Senator Chang-Díaz has also introduced a bill to establish a trust fund with the savings from improvements in the criminal justice system. This money would then be used to support programs for job training and drop-out prevention to keep youth out of prison in the first place.

Sheriff Tompkins discussed the need for services in prison to prepare people for reentry into society, and Conan Harris talked about Boston’s programs to help youths after their release from prison, including those that provide training and employment in the building trades and within city government. Lew Finfer noted that Massachusetts is entering a crucial period with respect to criminal justice reform.  In August of last year Governor Baker, House Speaker DeLeo, Senate President Rosenberg, and State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gants requested that the Council of State Governments study the criminal justice system in Massachusetts and make recommendations for reform. Based on this report, the four key officials will jointly propose legislation in the next few months. Finfer explained that this type of collaboration is extremely unusual and will create momentum for reform, but he also stressed that advocates must organize to ensure that the proposed legislation is as comprehensive and effective as possible.

Moderator Melissa Threadgill of the Crime and Justice Institute asked the panel why reforms in some “red states” have been implemented much more quickly than in liberal Massachusetts.  

Panelists pointed to the enormous costs of incarcerating large numbers of people for long periods of time, which has strained state budgets in many conservative states, but also to the lack of a strong Republican opposition in Massachusetts, which made it easier for Democratic leaders to avoid requiring their members to vote on contentious measures.

During audience questions, some expressed concern that the Council of State Governments study was looking at the wrong issues, focusing on recidivism and probation rather than on preventing imprisonment.  A criminal defense attorney questioned the arbitrary nature of many of the rules governing his clients in solitary confinement, such as the need for shackling when they meet with him and their confinement to a cell for 23 hours a day.  Other audience members raised the need for services that would support youth at risk before they faced imprisonment.

At the end of the program, JP Progressives urged audience members to sign a letter to their state representatives urging them to pass legislation on this critical issue. The State House partly heeded the call from many advocacy groups and included $250,000 for job training and reentry services for formerly incarcerated people returning to their communities.

But work remains to be done on reducing the burden of bail and probation, increasing mental health and job training supports in and out of prison, reducing unnecessarily long sentences, and reinvesting the money from reduced recidivism in the communities most harmed by mass incarceration.

JP Progressives announced has joined the Jobs Not Jails Coalition and will continue organizing events in Jamaica Plain.  

The Jobs Not Jails coalition plans a rally to demand real criminal justice reform from 10-11 AM on Tuesday, December 13, at 140 Bowdoin Street downtown.

If you want to attend or are interested in becoming involved, please contact us at moreinfo@jpprogressives.com

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