Focus on supervision and not sentencing a flash point in draft justice report

Calvin Feliciano (far right), deputy political director for SEIU 509, interrupted Wednesday's meeting of a criminal justice working group to express the need for sentencing reforms and led protesters in a 'Jobs not Jails' chant. [Photo: Antonio Caban/SHNS]

BOSTON, DEC. 21, 2016….Expanding access to programs and services for people in prison, hiring more probation officers and using community correction centers to help provide behavioral health services were among policy ideas floated Wednesday by researchers whose work will help shape a criminal justice reform effort in the new year.

In the final meeting between the Council of State Governments Justice Center and a 25-member working group, researchers from the council on Wednesday introduced policy models touching on reentry support, community supervision and behavioral health services.

The narrow focus of the policies — which CSG researchers said was set by state officials who charged them with studying the system — sparked outcry from the advocates in the audience, including SEIU Local 509 deputy political director Calvin Feliciano, who disrupted the discussion to lead the crowd in a “Jobs Not Jails” chant.

“They’re talking about supervision and drug treatment and minor changes and they’re not talking about the fact that people are going to jail in such numbers and they don’t have jobs to come home to,” Feliciano, a member of the Jobs Not Jails coalition, told reporters.

Wednesday’s discussion will shape the CSG researchers’ final report, which will be released in January and is expected to become the basis for legislation in the next session.

Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stan Rosenberg and Supreme Judicial Court Justice Ralph Gants reached out to the CSG in August 2015, requesting support for an effort to study the state’s judicial and corrections systems and institute new data-driven and cost-effective practices.

CSG senior policy advisor Steve Allen said the researchers were given “clear direction” and asked to answer a specific set of questions

“Justice reform and justice reinvestment is never as comprehensive as folks would like to have it be,” Allen said. “It can’t be.”

On the topic of reentry oversight and support, policies discussed included expanding capacity of programs and services in county jails in state prisons and creating incentives for prisoners to complete the programs.

Ideas to strengthen community supervision included hiring additional probation officers to reduce individual caseloads; improving interaction between probation and parole services to reduce dual supervision; and expanding access to community corrections centers.

Behavioral health policies included providing funding for recommended treatment; creating “specialized requirements and enhanced reimbursements” for behavioral health services; and establishing a pilot early intervention probation program that targets moderate- and high-risk youth between the ages of 18 to 25.

After attending the beginning of the meeting, members of the Jobs Not Jails coalition gathered outside the conference room to voice their frustrations with the review process and what it does not include.

“We’re going to be heard,” Massachusetts Communities Action Network director Lew Finfer told the group. “We’re going to get the legislators. The next step will be a bill that has the whole thing.”

Finfer said separate legislation filed in January will seek a broader suite of reforms, including repeals of mandatory minimum sentencing, diversion for treatment, raising the felony theft threshold and reducing the time it takes to seal a criminal record.

Rep. Russell Holmes told reporters that he and other members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus met Tuesday with DeLeo and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Fernandes to discuss reforms, including proposals around mandatory minimums.

“You hear today, what you heard the activists say, that they want an elimination of all mandatory mins,” Holmes said. “The speaker pretty much made it clear yesterday that he thought that that would not be one of the things that would come out of the legislation.”

Holmes said that while DeLeo indicated there was “not enough support” in the Legislature for eliminating all mandatory minimum sentences, “the caucus is obviously going to push as far as we can to get the things that we think are most appropriate.”

“Too many blacks and Latinos are locked up and that still is the case,” he said, adding, “We’re saying, let’s get them out, let’s get them programming, let’s get them connected to jobs.”

Rep. Byron Rushing, another member of the Black and Latino caucus, said the working group’s discussion focused on “relatively minor arguments about what should be going on at the back door” with probation and parole.

“They’re not doing enough,” he said. “They are not talking about how do you prevent people from getting into prison and what’s the most effective way of doing that.”

Rushing said he thinks his fellow lawmakers are ready to tackle criminal justice reform next session.

“I think the Legislature is ready for this, because I think the Legislature, like many of my colleagues, see this as something that they can figure out a way that they can get involved in this one time, but not five times, so the closer we can come to one proposal, one comprehensive bill, the better we’re going to be,” he said.

Copyright 2016 State House News Service