Chang-Diaz weighs-in on criminal justice reform

Members of the state Senate and House recently released a compromise criminal justice bill that local state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz calls “a massive turning point” for Massachusetts.

“For too long, the criminal justice system has been expensive, ineffective, and systematically racist,” Chang-Diaz said in a phone interview.

The compromise bill (S. 2371) merges the House bill and Senate bill and was unveiled late last month. Chang-Diaz, who has been a driving force behind criminal justice reform, said she expects that the Senate to vote on the bill on April 4, which is after the Gazette deadline. She said she is “hopeful” that it will pass.

“It has very deep and wide support in the Senate,” she said. “A lot of people worked really, really hard for this to get into law.”

The senator went on to say that the bill “honors the experiences and needs of those most impacted by crime.”

Chang-Diaz said a key aspect of the bill is its breadth, as the reforms range from police and community interaction (anti-bias and de-escalation training) to the bail system to sentencing (repealing mandatory minimum sentences on some drug charges and raising the threshold for felony larceny from $250 to $1,200) to solitary confinement practices to curtailing “punitive fines and fees that pull people back into the system.”

Repealing mandatory minimum sentences on some drug charges was a contentious issue with the majority of district attorneys in the state objecting to the measure last fall. Asked how the issue was resolved, the senator said that “different things compelled different people.” She said that there are a lot of good reasons to repeal it. She cited that it costs north of $50,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate, and that there is “absence of proof” that mandatory minimum sentences work. She also noted the racial disparities involved and that the mandatory minimums “tie the hands of judges.”

Chang-Diaz said she wanted to give a “big shout-out” to Rep. Liz Malia who helped put CORI reform into the House bill, an issue that the senator has been working on since she came to the State House. The CORI reform in the compromise bill will lower the threshold on how far back someone can search criminal records. For a felony, it goes from 10 years to seven years, while for a misdemeanor, it drops from five years to three years.

The senator said that that’s “really important,” as studies have shown that if a person has not re-offended after three years, that person is as likely to commit a crime as someone who has never been convicted of one.

Asked if there was anything not in the bill that she would have liked seen get in, Chang-Diaz said that while the bill is a major turning point, it’s “not a panacea” and “doesn’t have everything under the sun.” She said she would have liked to have seen the inclusion of a trust fund within the bill that would have collected money saved from not having so many people incarcerated. With the trust fund, reinvestments could have been made to communities impacted by crime through programs such as job training and high school drop-out prevention.

The senator ended the interview by thanking the coalitions and grassroots advocates who pushed for criminal justice reform to happen, even at the low points when it appeared nothing would get accomplished.

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