Why Criminal Justice Reform Matters: Watertown Hosts a Public Forum

In recent years, Massachusetts has made some progress on criminal justice reform, including the legalization of marijuana, the reduction of sentences for some drug related crimes, and raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18. However, the work is far from finished, so to inform us of what is at stake and about pending legislation, Progressive Watertown, Progressive Newton, Jobs Not Jails, and Watertown Citizens for Black Lives cosponsored the public forum "Why Criminal Justice Reform Matters." It was held Saturday, May 6th, at the Belmont-Watertown United Methodist Church.

The moderator, Richard Marcus, framed the discussion by pointing out the connection between race and mass incarceration. Partly due to the war on drugs, the prison population has climbed even as the violent crime rate has dropped, and 40% of that population is black. A black baby born today has a one in three chance of someday being incarcerated. America’s original sin is racism, and its taint is far from gone.


Allen Epstein of GBIO (Greater Boston Interfaith Organization) continued this theme. Although Massachusetts has the second lowest rate of incarceration in the nation, it still has a higher rate than only ten other countries in the world. There has been a 26% drop in violent crime since 1980, yet the prison population has more than doubled, attributable to the war on drugs, racial bias, and draconian sentencing laws. African Americans are represented in the prison population at a rate two- to three-times higher than in the general population.

This harshness stands in stark contrast to his belief that all people are born good. Bad behavior is the result of a lifetime of hurts, and rehabilitation is possible. It is far better to use an approach such as restorative justice, where perpetrators, victims, and community members are brought together to achieve reconciliation and healing.

There are some grounds for hope. Criminal justice reform can be a bipartisan issue, because conservatives can also get behind it in support of fairness and cost savings. As evidence of progress, he cited the recent unanimous passage of legislation that repealed automatic driver’s license suspension for drug related convictions, and removed the $500 fee and up to 5 year delay for license reinstatement. 


James Mackey shared how mass incarceration had impacted his family. On December 2, 1982 his 19 year old father was sentenced to 60 years to life in prison, and told that he would never get out. His mother was a few months pregnant with him. What did this do to his mother, having to cope with this?  Later his younger brother went to prison at the age of 17. What does it do to a community to have so many missing fathers, so many missing brothers? He was six years old when he was first told he would grow up to be just like his father. If so, then that meant he should be bad, right? His brother took that message to heart and like many people around him, internalized the many troubles his neighborhood faced.

These experiences led him to form Stuck on Replay, which works to bring the voices of the people most affected by mass incarceration into the conversation about reform. As he put it, if you're not at the table, you're on the table. Stuck on Replay holds public forums to give people a space to talk about their experiences. It is also pushing to repeal the exception clause (also called the punishment clause) of the 13th Amendment. Because of this amendment, slavery is illegal, except as punishment for a crime. While outright slavery has been banned by the courts, prisons still use the clause to make a handsome profit off the often involuntary labor of inmates, who are paid a pittance for their work.


Caroline Bays read a compilation of two letters from an inmate she has been visiting. Andrew has been held in solitary confinement for over 6 months, and was recently sentenced to 4 years of solitary, all from one incident when he had a mental breakdown. He wrote of the psychological struggle of life in segregation. You can read it below.


Cassandra Bensahih of EPOCA (Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement) shared her story of addiction and incarceration. When she was 19 years old, she nearly died from being shot by a .22 caliber rifle. In the hospital she was given pain medication, and after the pills ran out, she turned to alcohol and cocaine to numb the pain. This led to 20 years of addiction and eventually her arrest. Hers is not an uncommon story. In her community, though dealing with such violence, the effects of racism (she grew up during bus desegregation), and other traumas, there was no therapy available. Instead, people learned to push it down or self medicate. She did not get help, and with a father who was an alcoholic, the dice were loaded against her.

Her arrest did not impact only her: she is a mother. As the number of incarcerated women continues to grow (most of whom have mental health or substance abuse issues), more and more mothers and children too will face separation.

Looking back, she questioned if it had really been better for her daughters to lose the home where they were cared for and loved, though it was the home of an addict. While she was in prison, her daughters went through 17 different foster homes, where they faced emotional neglect and sexual abuse. When standing in front of the judge, she begged him to let her get help, to not be separated from her daughters. His response? You should have thought of that before you took up drugs.

As she fiercely declared, it’s wrong to think that it's ok to lock people up, yet feel no obligation to rehabilitate them. Surely we can do better than such callous indifference. The Caregiver Bill will reform how we treat families in this situation, by providing alternatives to incarceration, such as drug treatment programs or mental health care. She imagined how different life would have been if rather than being locked up and her daughters sent to live with uncaring strangers, she had gotten help for her trauma and her addiction. Instead, recovery had to wait until prison, where a pastor taught her to pray and to free her mind even while her body was incarcerated. After her release, EPOCA found her. Simply being told that other people cared about someone like her helped her continue to recover. By working with them, she learned about leadership skills she didn't know she had. As she noted, “People don't heal by themselves, they heal with the help of their community.”

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan mused that prosecutors are generally not at events like this one, but her 40 years of experience in the justice system has taught her the importance of preventing crime, rather than simply punishing it. Middlesex County has a number of innovative programs aimed at achieving just that. Childhood trauma, such as the drug overdose of a parent, is known to often lead to addiction or incarceration later on. It can start as soon as the next day, when the bereaved child returns to school and acts out. The school staff may know nothing about what is triggering the behavior, and may respond not compassionately but punitively, perhaps even setting the child on the first step of the school to prison pipeline.

Project C.A.R.E. was set up in the Lowell area to help stop such cycles of trouble. When police, fire, or EMTs find that a child is impacted by an opioid overdose, they contact the Mental Health Association of Greater Lowell, who will coordinate with DCF, mental health professionals, family members, and schools to make sure that the child gets the care they need to cope with trauma.

Middlesex County also has a number of pre-trial diversion and treatment programs for juveniles and young adults accused of a crime, as well as a restorative justice program. All of these programs reflect her conviction that when possible it is always a better remedy to provide therapy than to ensnare people in the system.


State Senator Will Brownsberger, as always, brought thoughtful insights and nuance into the discussion. He saw first hand the dangers of drugs when he lived in New York during the height of the crack epidemic--he was caught in police gun battles four separate times. Later, when blood testing became common, it was found that about 70% of those arrested had drugs in their body. Although legalization is fine for marijuana, for the harder drugs the question is more complicated, because of the very real harm they cause.

For a while he was an advocate for drug courts, where the threat of jail time would be used to force people to change--it seemed more humane than simply throwing people into prison. But when he finally began listening to addicts and others affected by these policies, he realized that incarceration was a blunt instrument. Even with drug courts, if you slip up once (which is part of the nature of addiction), you go back to prison, you lose your job and your girlfriend, and after losing all that, why not slip back into your old ways?

He noted that in the 1970s, as a nation we somehow shifted from the War on Poverty to the War on Drugs. The prison population ballooned as our sense of what was an appropriate punishment because much harsher. We know that even a single day in jail is harmful, so even a single extra day is too much.

The panelists were asked, what are their legislative priorities this year, and what are the challenges to getting these passed?

Cassandra believes the Caregiver Bill would help restore dignity to people, and give them the belief that they can make it. She also hopes to repeal mandatory minimums, which sometimes give longer punishments for low level offenses than for much more serious crimes. 

Marian commented that while Middlesex County is doing well, she would like to see a restorative justice approach spread throughout the state, especially into Western Massachusetts. She noted that there was not much opposition, but there are so many bills up for consideration that it’s hard to get enough attention to get it passed.

The panelists spoke in support of several other bills. Parole and pre-trial reform are needed, because imprisoning people before trial makes it hard for them to hold onto jobs and care for their families. As Allen noted, there should be a presumption of innocence, which means not punishing people before they are convicted.

The de-Criminalization of Poverty bill would help stop the downward spiral Will mentioned, where inability to pay court fines leads to jail time, which leads to job loss, which leads to more inability to pay. It also doesn’t make fiscal sense to pay the cost of jailing someone for not paying a small fine.

The use of solitary confinement should be limited. As Will pointed out, every further loss of privileges leads to worse outcomes after release, and solitary confinement is the ultimate loss of privileges. The Department of Correction and Houses of Correction currently set much of their own policy with regards to the use of solitary confinement and other disciplinary measures. The legislature can do much more to place some limits on this (for instance, the current maximum time in solitary is 10 years).

Reform of juvenile justice was another big discussion topic. There are several measures to support, including the Juvenile Justice Omnibus Bill, diversion programs for youthful offenders, and a bill to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction from 18 to 21. There is much to do. As James mentioned, children can be convicted of a crime at the age of seven. The audience was visibly stunned by this revelation.

Mingling youth with adults is not a good idea, because they make easy targets in prison. Will said that the biggest thing we can do for reform is to change the age of juvenile jurisdiction. Whether a defendant is classified as an adult or a juvenile makes a huge difference in how they are treated, with the juvenile system much more rehabilitation-oriented. After all, the brains of young adults are not fully matured until well into their 20s, and we don’t even allow people to rent a car until they are 25.

There is a limit to what the legislature can do. There will always be a lot of discretion in the court system, because it is simply too complex to set laws for every situation. Who is put into various positions by the governor will have a large impact. However, the legislature sets fines and other punishments, so that is where reform can happen.

The last question was “what can we do?” James mentioned an upcoming event being held by Stuck on Replay next Saturday, May 13. They will screen part of the documentary 13th, and hold a discussion on the harmful effects of the exception clause. In general, the panelists encouraged us to educate ourselves, to join organizations working to bring about change, to call our legislators, and to urge our friends and family living in other parts of the state to do the same.


Richard ended by relating an experience he had. One time he called his legislator, asking why he hadn’t visibly supported some legislation that it seemed obvious he would support. The legislator replied that Richard was the first person to call and ask him to! The lesson here is that you should still contact your legislator, even if they support the same policies as you. With a multitude of bills to consider and limited time, legislators tend to support bills only if their constituents urge them to.

The panelists and organizers deserve a big thanks for putting on this wonderful event. It will hopefully, as Cassandra put it, help us become a community of change.



Andrew's Words:

Our Own Worst Enemy

My name is Convict. That is who I have become. I am doing a long time for a crime that I didn't commit, but in the eyes of my captors, my name remains Convict. I have been given the unique experience of seeing first hand a world that I would have never before imagined seeing: prison. 

Recent, I read a report about some changes that the department of corrections wished to implement, changes that would make the lives of convicts all the more difficult, that would make the lives of our loved ones more difficult. It is the latter of which that drove me to seek help, that woke me from the hopelessness that only loneliness knows. 

I’m slowly slipping into madness. If Hell had a place on Earth, it would be called segregation. Evolved from a place of peace and quiet, segregation has become a terrible experience of psychological and physical abuse. I have seen things that no young man should ever see, experienced things that no citizen would wish upon their worst enemy, and have had an intimate relationship with a kind of utter loneliness that, in the words of Kenneth Hodge, "Should never be forced on anyone that once knew freedom." 

Violence begets violence, and suffering begets suffering; is there no end to that madness? Can one voice possibly be heard amidst the chaos? If so, then from one convict to the rest of the world, try peace over violence, for where there is one, there can be many. 

Somehow Hopeful, 



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