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5 Things To Know About Beacon Hill's Proposed Criminal Justice Overhaul

Gov. Charlie Baker, flanked by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Lt. Gove. Karyn Polito, was interrupted by demonstrators Tuesday.
Gov. Charlie Baker, flanked by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Lt. Gove. Karyn Polito, was interrupted by demonstrators Tuesday.
Mike Deehan/WGBH News

It was a rare sight on Beacon Hill Tuesday as the leaders of all three branches of Massachusetts's government stood assembled to push forward changes to the way the state releases prisoners at the end of their sentences. Legislative leaders often appear alongside Gov. Charlie Baker, but it was the presence of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, the head of the judicial branch, that signaled that the bipartisan criminal justice reform package filed by Baker is going to be treated well by lawmakers.

Prisoners can earn time off their sentences by participating in rehabilitation programs

A major piece of the legislation is enhancing programming for prisoners to better rehabilitate them and prepare them for re-entering the working world at the close of their sentence. New early-release incentives will also be put in place to motivate prisoners to take part in the educational, training or substance abuse programs. But only around two-thirds of prisoners will be eligible for the "good time" incentives, because opiate-based and violent offenders are being left out.

The legislation has been a long time coming

Former Gov. Deval Patrick cracked open the issue of criminal justice reform in 2010, when he signed a law given to him by lawmakers reforming criminal background checks. At the time, a "part two" focusing on recidivism and mandatory minimum sentencing was promised, but never came to be. Baker reopened the plan by getting the three branches on the same page and enlisting a national organization and workgroup to analyze the state's system and draw up recommendations.

The debate over criminal justice reform and mandatory minimum sentencing - where judges have little or no control over how to punish certain offenders - was the subject of a debate with public leaders this week on WGBH's Under the Radar with Callie Crossley.

But some see it as a half-measure

By only dealing with the "back-end" of prisoner reform and release, the bill doesn't go nearly as far as some would like. Community protesters have been bombarding the working group with calls to end mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders, arguing that keeping people out of jail to begin with is the key to decreasing recidivism.

"There are some very significant problems that need to be addressed in the criminal justice system and because this process only looked at the backend, we never get to keeping people out of the criminal justice system in the first place," ACLU Massachusetts Racial Justice Program director Rahsaan Hall told reporters after the event. Hall said very little space was given for community advocates to influence the working group, which relied heavily on the expertise of law enforcement.

"The repeal of mandatory minimums and other significant criminal justice reforms have always been put off and delayed while we're looking at data. Well now we have the data, now we have the report," Hall said.

And activists aren't going away

The arcadian Tuesday morning press conference introducing the measures was interrupted three time by frour demonstrators, who interposed calls for mandatory minimum sentencing be eliminated between remarks by Rosenberg, DeLeo, Baker and Gants.

"If we didn't speak up, we believe none of this would be happening. And that's why it's so important that the public keep organizing and keep saying that this is important for our families and for the future of our state," Essex County Community Organization Director of Clergy and Leadership Development Rabbi Margie Klein said.

The Senate may have it's own ideas

Because there is such consensus on Baker's proposal, regardless of whether lawmakers feel it should go further, it's doubtful any activist senators will block or try to alter the bill to make it cover more ground. More likely, the upper chamber could act on it's own to pass a bill further moving the goalposts, perhaps giving advocates what they want and eliminating mandatory minimums.

"Incarceration should be a last resort when there are other options available to people who have engaged in non-violent activities that may come into conflict with law, but are being driven either by their addiction or their mental illness," Rosenberg said.

Sen. William Brownsberger, the Senate's Judiciary Committee Chairman, is proud of the legislation leaders agreed on and Baker filed Tuesday afternoon.

"I think this product reflects the original mission of the study, which was to focus on recidivism, and I think it offers some positive steps forward in that space. I think there's a much broader agenda to address," Brownsberger said, while adding that there is a "broader agenda" that included mandatory minimums that lawmakers will have to look at.

"I look forward to addressing that broader agenda while also moving forward what I think... is a good package of legislation," Brownsberger said.

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