The state Senate late last month passed legislation for criminal justice reform, which included the repeal of mandatory minimum sentences of some drug offenses and raising the age at which youths can be charged as adults, as well as other charges. Local state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz has been a vocal proponent for criminal justice reform. The Gazette conducted a question-and-answer session through email with the senator about criminal justice reform. The session has been edited.
(The House recently released and passed its own version of criminal justice reform legislation. The two bills will now head to a committee.)
Q: What prompted you to get involved with criminal justice reform?
A: I first got involved with criminal justice reform in the 2009-10 term, when the first round of CORI reform occurred, and during that process I learned how broken the system really is. Our criminal justice system is supposed to keep people safe and treat everyone fairly, but what I have heard so many times – and what the data affirms – is that the system has become as much a perpetrator as a protector. Over the past few decades, especially, the system has become a costly, ineffective, and racist mess. Despite locking up four to five times more people than we did 40 years ago, we have achieved no decrease in drug addiction. Saying “we’re going tough on those drug dealers” feels good politically, but does nothing to solve the problems we care most about–whether it’s preventing the next drug overdose or shooting or stopping a mom in my district from having to worry about the needles constantly littering her kids’ park.
Q: Have there been any poignant stories you have heard during the whole effort that have particularly resonated with you and show the need for reform to be done?
A: I have heard stories from many constituents – and they’re too often heartbreaking. Most recently, I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with a group of mothers last month. At a community meeting, they told me they are worried about the needles constantly littering their kids’ park. When I asked them whether we should have stiffer penalties for the people supplying those drugs, they told me that it was tempting, but that it wouldn’t solve the underlying problem–and that’s what they really cared about. The sad fact is that our current criminal justice policies are worsening cycles of poverty, violence, and crime–not getting us out of those cycles.
Q: What will it mean to the communities that you represent, specifically Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill, if you and your colleagues are successful with criminal justice reform?
A: If we are able to institute comprehensive criminal justice reform, millions of taxpayer dollars will stop being siphoned off for an ineffective system. As a Commonwealth we spend more than $53,000 per year for each person we have incarcerated. Those are massive investments that could be going toward supporting community programs, education, and evidence-based initiatives that will help reduce crime. And on top of all that, we will all have a justice system that better upholds our core principles of fairness and equality.
Q: What can community members and/or groups do if they want to be involved with the reform effort?
A: They should keep talking to their elected officials and keep making their voices heard about what’s important to them in this legislation. There are still more decisions to be made before any criminal justice reform bill becomes law, and your voice still makes a difference.