Op-ed: Reflections on passing criminal justice reform

December 1, 2017
By

By Local State Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez

Recently, I worked with my colleagues in the Massachusetts House of Representatives to pass two criminal justice reform bills. Through a number of practical and progressive policies, we made a commitment to ensure public safety while helping those in the criminal justice system turn their lives around.

I’ve been engaged in this conversation for a long time. Growing up in Boston, many of my childhood friends felt the impacts of an unjust criminal justice system. Rep. Liz Malia has long been a leader on these issues, and thanks to her work on this effort, we were able to pass a significant piece of legislation. It’s a big deal that we are reforming our criminal justice system and I am proud to have been involved in passing this comprehensive reform.

The first piece, commonly referred to as the Council of State Governments bill, builds on a $3 million investment in our state budget to reduce recidivism. It allows individuals to earn early release by participating in recidivism-reduction programs.

The second bill is broader in scope and addresses challenges in the system from the earliest point at which an individual makes contact, sometimes as children, up until the time that an individual reenters society after incarceration.

Addressing juvenile justice was a priority for me because kids are bound to make mistakes. If a high schooler lifts a pair of sneakers, that charge can haunt them the rest of their life. The legislation addresses juvenile justice by creating a process for records to be expunged for the first time in Massachusetts. Expungement completely erases a criminal record and applies to certain juvenile (under 18) and criminal offenses for young adults (18-21). It also allows for expungement of convictions which are no longer crimes, such as those related to marijuana.

Our legislation eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level drug offenses, increases the threshold for felony larceny from $250 to $1,000, and establishes a standard for fines and fees to be reduced so people don’t go to jail simply because they can’t afford to pay.

Half of the state’s prison population is comprised of individuals being held pre-trail, and a disproportionate number of those inmates are minority defendants who face higher bail. In this bill, we require the courts to consider someone’s financial situation when setting bail, ultimately preventing individuals from being jailed simply because they lack the financial means to post bail.

Individuals recently released from prison have an unemployment rate 50 percent higher than the general public. The sooner people find employment, the less likely they are to commit additional crimes. Being able to seal your CORI is a game-changer. In this legislation, we build upon our progressive actions relative to CORI in 2010 and 2012. We shorten the waiting period to seal a CORI report from 10 to 7 years for felonies and 5 to 3 years for misdemeanors. Resisting arrest becomes a sealable offense for the first time and an applicant can answer “no record” when applying for housing. These policies align with our goals of reducing recidivism and expanding access to opportunities.

Several amendments were added to the bill during debate, including one that establishes a panel on justice-involved women to review the impact of this bill and other criminal statutes on women in our criminal justice system. Another amendment ensures families of murder victims receive adequate reimbursement for funeral and burial costs.

We are in the midst of a public health crisis, so this bill requires district attorneys to create diversion programs so people with substance use disorders or mental illness and veterans can access appropriate services and programs. It creates a mechanism for compassionate release and places limitations on solitary confinement to ensure people are treated humanely.

These monumental reforms are going to make a real impact in the lives of people here and across the Commonwealth. We focus on treating people as individuals, instead of applying broad-based policies. In addition to funding safe and successful youth programs that address the violence in our communities, the House has taken steps to improve the criminal justice system so people can take advantage of new opportunities and we can break the cycle of incarceration.

 

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