The House Can Strengthen Criminal Justice Reform

Mon, Tue, Wed of this week (Nov. 13-15), the Massachusetts House will start voting on a comprehensive criminal justice reform. The House bill, as expected, is not as comprehensive or as progressive as the Senate bill.

We must work to make it better before the vote on its final form: we must contact our State Representatives, NOW, loudly, and in as large numbers as we can. 

The House will be voting on amendments Monday through Wednesday. 

It's vitally important representatives hear that you want to see a stronger bill that delivers on the promise of comprehensive criminal justice reform. Mass incarceration has proven socially a socially and economically damaging phenomenon, and it's time for Massachusetts to move beyond it.

Email/call your Representative TODAY (a copy/paste email script is here: progma.us/cjr-house-2017nov) and tell them to support/oppose the amendments below (when you're done--take a sec and let us know you called/contacted your Rep: it helps us know where we need to target more!). We'll be tracking the progress on these measures in the spreadsheet below. 

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Senate "Report Card" on the Criminal Justice Reform Bill

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 Download our hypertext, navigable, annotated s2185 roll call PDF packet, here: progressivemass.com/cjr-sen-rollcallpacket.

In the wee hours of Oct. 27, the State Senate passed a historic Criminal Justice Reform bill 27 to 10 (See our "first take" analysis here).

Although four Democrats--Eileen Donoghue, Anne Gobi, Kathleen O’Conor Ives, and Mike Rush--joined the Senate’s six Republicans in voting NO, Senate Democrats still achieved the magic number of 27, the number necessary to override a veto from Governor Charlie Baker.

Progressives fought hard and were able to get a number of big wins. But DAs and police departments also fought hard against true reform (and won some things to). They will be fighting hard again as the House prepares to vote. So should we. 

CJR Roll Calls

The Senate considered 163 amendments to the underlying reform bill. Many were adopted or rejected by voice vote, or simply withdrawn. But those which were roll called offer a great window into whether legislators are fighting for progressive values or not. When the question “Whose side are you on?” gets asked, you can see how they respond.

As we have described before, roll call votes on amendments are the only record of an individual legislator’s vote. In taking the measure of your legislator, these are the tools before us, and the limitations are obvious: when not all votes are individually recorded (voice vote/not roll called), the picture will be skewed by what roll calls we DO have. The question as to why the Legislature does not routinely take roll calls is an important one, and it gets to issues of transparency and individual voters’ ability to hold legislators accountable to their votes. There were some terrible provisions that passed (or failed) only on voice vote. There were some good ones that passed (or failed) only on voice vote, too. We can’t tell you how your legislator voted on them because we don’t have the record. (But you could ask!).

Methodology

In the Report Card below, we scored 17 amendments and the vote on the final bill. We did not include amendments with unanimous or nearly unanimous votes without a real stand for progressive values or against misguided “tough on crime” fear-mongering.

Overview of Results

Five senators consistently voted to keep a strong bill intact and further improve it: Joe Boncore, Sonia Chang-Diaz, Cindy Creem, Jamie Eldridge, and Pat Jehlen have a perfect score on our CJR report card. If you live in their district, you should thank them. (If you don’t, tell your own Senator how much you appreciate their leadership!)

Following them were a dozen Democrats with (mostly) As or (some) Bs: Mike Barrett, Will Brownsberger, Majority Leader Harriette Chandler, Julian Cyr, Sal DiDomenico, Linda Dorcena Forry, Cindy Friedman, Adam Hinds, Jason Lewis, Tom McGee, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, and Ways & Means Chair Karen Spilka. They almost always held the line and should be thanked as well.

Like the Senate’s six Republicans, eleven Democrats worked hard for their F, voting for the progressive position less than half the time: Michael Brady, Eileen Donoghue, Anne Gobi, Joan Lovely, Michael Moore, Kathleen O’Connor Ives, Marc Pacheco, Michael Rodrigues, Mike Rush, Walter Timilty, and James Welch. That said, Brady, Lovely, Moore, Rodrigues, Timilty, and Welch still voted for the final bill (unlike Rush, Gobi, O’Connor Ives, and Donoghue--Pacheco was absent) and deserve your thanks for that.

And, though several Senators (many of whom have been backed by progressive forces in their elections and have cited their liberal cred when it’s easy and useful) were disappointing in their failure to stand up at critical junctures, ultimately, it is a testament to the Senate leadership as well as the work of advocates (like YOU) that efforts to roll back the progress in the bill were defeated

So what actually happened in all those amendments? Read a deep dive into what they were all about here, and find out how your senator voted below.

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The Senate Criminal Justice Reform Bill: Amendments, Analysis, Action

The Senate CJR Bill: Analysis and Next Steps

SOME NOTES OF ANALYSIS:

1- This bill is a big win for progressives--and it happened only because of advocacy. Making your voices heard, organizing in your communities, reaching out consistently and continually, from bill cosponsorship to amendments, gives our progressive legislators the support push for the most progressive reforms that they can. Your advocacy pushes those who would not otherwise be with us to take a hard stance--or at least not go unnoticed when she/he fails to lead. 

Let's take a moment to thank the progressive leaders on the Hill who made this victory possible, and recognize the tremendous role that all of our activism played in making it so. BIG rounds of applause!! 

When our legislators take risks, we need to show we have their backs and appreciate them: reach out to your Senator and express your gratitude for the Senate adoption of a strong, progressive bill* that reduces mass incarceration and moves our whole system towards more justice. (We'll have some template/draft language to make it easier, but in the meantime, a quick heartfelt "thanks" email or call is simple and can go a long way).

(*FWIW: not every legislator worked for this outcome--10 senators voted against the final bill--and many, many more voted to weaken the bill or even worsen the status quo (see: the noxious "#BlueLivesMatter" super-penalty provision (which we'll address in subsequent follow-up posts). Still: expressing your happiness with the outcome -- regardless of how the senator voted-- is itself important: it shows that their constituents value progressive steps forward (and they know how they voted in opposition to those aims). That said, be sure to extra-thank our progressive leaders. We'll have a fuller analysis and vote breakdown soon.)

2- This is not yet law; this is one chamber (Senate) that has acted. The MA House will pass its own CJR bill. The House is less progressive than the Senate: ongoing advocacy with your State Reps continues to be important, and, like yesterday, during amendment time--critical and urgent. 

3- Advocacy around Amendments are where the differences are made between a decent bill and a boldly progressive bill. Engagement during these moments is crucial.

Unfortunately--the process is very difficult to organize and mobilize advocacy/action around: amendments are drafted in a short turnaround, the list can be extraordinarily dense, and the actual window of advocacy unfolds rapidly. 

Though the Senate bill passing is a truly positive step forward, we must be attentive to the fight over amendments, for every legislative battle for progressive advancement in Massachusetts. Now that it has passed the Senate chamber, it is easy enough for your Senator to take credit for voting for this historic advancement. But,

  • ...did she or he ALSO try to weaken the bill by voting for poisonous, regressive amendments like weaponizing drug overdoses (amendment 28, adopted without a roll call) or reducing the felony threshhold (amendment 5, voted down but with 5 Dems voting for it)? 
  • ...did she or he stand up for progressive advancements like eliminating minimum mandatory sentencing? Did she or he vote down the peacocking "tough on crime" (and terrible for communities!) provisions like creating a "superpenalty" for shooting a law enforcement officer? 
    (again: we'll have a fuller vote breakdown soon)

These amendment votes don't carry headlines or even make much notice beyond a very brief window in aftermath. But these inflection points are exactly where we must take the measure of our lawmakers: when it comes time to do the harder things, to make the real reforms, do they stand up? Do they fight for us and our communities? Or, do they only go along with the easiest route toward the minimal standard of progress (and are happy to take the credit for the larger victory, nevertheless)?

4- Lack of Sunlight is a democracy-jammer; it makes our work together harder--and more important. It is really difficult to get at these important distinctions. We'd argue that the abysmal transparency of the MA Legislature as a whole is likely a feature, not a bug, and serves to keep these distinctions as obscured as possible. 

For the progressive citizen-advocate, we'd like to reiterate some of our motivations and goals as an organization of, by and for progressive citizen-activists/advocates:

  • - We're trying to make this process less opaque, and to make the moments where your advocacy really does shape important policy (the difference between bad, meh, good and ground-breaking), as easy to access and engage as we can.
  • - Keeping track is important and difficult, but we're building tools (see our scorecard) and providing information (see below) for all of us to not only see/assess these important distinctions, but to more easily refer to them, create a history of them, and therefore more readily keep legislators accountable.
  • - When Progressive Mass makes these calls to actions on amendments -- we need your help in encouraging others to understand the critical importance of acting. It's all dense and complicated; we need to build the community of citizen-activists who 'get it' so we can be louder, faster, and at a moment's notice.
  • - All of this work is takes intensive labor, hours, and dedication by our all-volunteer Issues Committee (affectionately known as the PMIC). It can be exhausting!

Our vision is that someday we have the resources to do all of this even better.

Member engagement and contributions are critical to getting there.

If you have found this work, our tools, and our analyses helpful, please consider making it official by becoming a member, or convert to a monthly member investment, or make an additional contribution to show your support. (THANK YOU: for your support and for your commitment to take the actions, ongoing, to make the change we want to see).


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