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Criminal Justice Reform Seen As Major Goal For Baker And Beacon Hill Democrats

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Mark Heard/Flickr

Massachusetts is poised to join the ranks of states that are serious about reforming how they deal with drug offenses and prison policy.

Beacon Hill’s creaking legislative machinery is gearing  toward new ways to reduce the prison population, keep offenders from going back to jail, and – in the process – simultaneously saving taxpayers money.

In the short term, the Legislature showed the tip of what could be a very large policy iceberg when it last week repealed parts of an old law that automatically revoked the driver's licenses of those convicted for drug offenses. The goal of the move: to enable newly released felons to get back to work, which is almost impossible without transportation. This should reduce rates of re-offending and serial imprisonment.

In the long term, the state is marshaling officials and interest groups to conduct a top-down study of what changes future reforms should look like. A new working group lead by Gov. Charlie Baker's top legal aide and the Legislature's two Judicial Committee Chairs is bringing the state's court, law enforcement, public safety and reentry stakeholders to the table to establish comprehensive criminal justice reform goals and the means to execute them.

The public policy jargon for this kind of criminal sentencing and judicial reform is "justice reinvestment," a term that makes clear the emphasis on tax savings.

Speaker Robert DeLeo said he's heard from reform advocates who want the Legislature to act on a reform bill once the task force finishes its work.

"Right now, we have the [Council of State Governments] doing this analysis of our criminal justice laws here in Massachusetts, so some folks are saying well, this should be part of that debate which looks as though it won't be happening until next year," after the group issues a final report, DeLeo said.

Rep. Evandro Carvalho, former prosecutor who represents a majority-minority district in Dorchester and Roxbury, is encouraged by the task force's goals.

"I'm very optimistic.  I think it' going to show that we need to do more for people and lock them up less. I think the conversation down the road is going to be on mandatory minimums, it's going to be about school zones," Carvalho said. 

The working group is lead by of Sen. William Brownsberger, the Senate Judiciary Chair, his House counterpart, Rep. John Fernendes, and Lon Povich, Baker's Chief Legal Counsel. It's composed of police officials from around the state, a collection of local sheriffs, state safety and prison , and others. They met Tuesday for the first time at the State House. The group heard a research presentation and established the foundation for a year-long analysis of where Massachusetts is, and where it needs to go. The group is focused on smarter and more effective management of offenders, while at the same time maintaining public safety, and cutting costs.

A number of things have changed since the 1980s and 90s. At the time. long prison sentences were written into law in Massachusetts and elsewhere with the intention of deterring drug offenders and keeping the worst violent offenders off the streets.

At the forefront of that national trend was President Bill Clinton. Today, however, he sees parts of his 1994 crime law as counterproductive, and recognizes that it contributed to the mass incarceration of minority men – often for trivial offenses.

“I signed a bill that made the problem worse,” Clinton said at a July 2015 presidential campaign appearance for his wife, Hillary Clinton.

“The bad news is we had a lot of people who were essentially locked up who were minor actors for way too long," the former president said, the New York Times reported.

That sentiment has reached Beacon Hill in a big way, with Republican leaders joining with the Democrats who control lawmaking.

"I think there is some merit to the argument that there is a willingness to cross party lines to look at the way we've been doing things for a long time and where we're at," House Minority Leader Brad Jones told WGBH News in an interview.

"The war on drugs and 'just say no' didn't necessarily solve society's problems. Obviously it's not as simple as that, but everybody has an obligation to be open," Jones said of Republicans' willingness to reexamine the old laws.

Jones pointed to an "evolving pool of knowledge" and new research showing how incarceration and recidivism can harm the community. Like Baker and some budget-minded Democrats, Jones wants to deal with the cost of incarcerating so many.

"We had a sort of approach that was if you violated the norms of society you would be separated from society for an extended period of time and obviously there's a huge cost component to that," Jones said.

Beacon Hill is left with a rare opportunity: completing a reform project supported by both sides of the aisle that might have a lasting impact on a state budget already stretched to the breaking point.

The cost argument isn't lost on Carvalho.

"The policies will align, and I think that's what you're seeing. It just depends on how you sell it to different folks. 'This is going to save you money, or 'this is good for the community. So I think as long as you can come to an agreement that moving forward that less jail, especially drug-related offenses, is better for the community," Carvalho said.

President Barack Obama began his recent State of the Union address with references to issues the House has recently taken action on - last week's license bill and Wednesday's opiate abuse legislation.

Carvalho sees that as a sign that Massachusetts is headed the right way.

"For me, the big picture here is we're going in the right direction and we're continuing to lead the nation in some of these issues," Carvalho said.

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