Black, Latino lawmakers dissatisfied with criminal justice effort

The final report is due later this month

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BOSTON, Mass. (State House News Service) – Critical of an ongoing review of the state’s criminal justice system, some members of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus say they plan to continue their push for sentencing reform and still see avenues for broader changes ahead this session.

The review began after Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stan Rosenberg and Supreme Judicial Court Justice Ralph Gants reached out to the Council of State Governments (CSG) in August 2015, requesting support to study the state’s judicial and corrections systems to bring about new data-driven, cost-effective practices.

The final report is due later this month, and initial policy ideas presented to a working group in December sparked an outcry from advocates who were disappointed to see issues like sentencing and bail left out of the discussion.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, who with other members of the caucus has been following the CSG analysis, said she maintains hope the process could still lead to comprehensive reform after pushes by activists and lawmakers.

“The final report hasn’t [been] issued, the legislation hasn’t been filed, and there’s a window of opportunity for the big four, for the steering committee, to make it right and to follow through on the commitments that they made to make this a truly comprehensive process,” Chang-Diaz said in a recent interview.

Policy ideas the researchers have presented focus on pre-release programming and support, stronger community supervision, behavioral health services and expanded collection, reporting and coordination of data across the criminal justice system.

Though CSG staff said at a December working group meeting they were charged from the outset with answering a specific set of questions, Chang-Diaz said supporters of sentencing reform had expected to see such changes on the table.

“Legislators and advocates alike, they have really held their fire and engaged in good faith in a patience exercise waiting for that process to play out, and are getting clear signs over the last couple of months that the process actually wasn’t going to end up including meaningful sentencing reform,” the Jamaica Plain Democrat said. “So over those last couple months, I’ve seen and heard people rightly sounding the alarm about that, and saying that’s not what we signed up for.”

Some pockets of support for sentencing reform – including adjustments to or elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing – have existed on Beacon Hill but the full Legislature has avoided taking up the issue in recent years.

In an address to fellow senators on Wednesday, Rosenberg called for an end to mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders and said the Legislature needs “this term to pass meaningful criminal justice reforms.” Gants, too, has been critical of mandatory minimums in drug cases.

A 2012 law eliminated parole eligibility for certain three-time violent offenders while also reducing minimum sentences for drug offenses and making some drug offenders eligible for earlier release.

Before signing the law, Gov. Deval Patrick pledged to continue to push for sentencing reform over the next two years, saying “warehousing of non-violent drug offenders has proven to be a costly failure.”

When the repeat offender legislation was being discussed, then-House Judiciary Committee Chairman Eugene Flaherty spoke with the Black and Latino Caucus about the levels of support for doing away with mandatory minimums for various offenses, recalled Rep. Russell Holmes, the caucus chair.

“He made it clear, even through that discussion as we were going through many of the offenses, that you just couldn’t get enough support for the entire Legislature for that,” Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat, said after the December CSG meeting. “But in the caucus, obviously, we’re 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’s still the case.”

A CSG analysis of sentencing data, presented to a working group in December, found that a larger portion of black and Hispanic defendants — 47 percent each — were sentenced to incarceration than white defendants, at 37 percent. The cause of the disproportionality was unclear, researchers said.

“The whole question of racial disparities is coming so late in the process that we are not sure what it’s going to inform in terms of the recommendations,” Rep. Byron Rushing told reporters at the December meeting. “So essentially you need to go back and look at all of the recommendations that they’re thinking about making and test them against these statistics that we are now finding out about the number and percentages of Black and Hispanic prisoners.”

Saying the CSG review is “not doing enough,” Rushing, a Boston Democrat, pointed to the ongoing work of the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, an independent panel reconstituted in 2014 by Patrick and charged by the Legislature with recommending sentencing policies and practices.

He said he has been “telling advocates that they have to be putting as much pressure on the Sentencing Commission now as they’re putting on” the CSG working group.

Lawmakers weighing plans aimed at reducing recidivism rates and incarceration costs while boosting pre- and post-release support services and access to behavioral health services are also mindful of political considerations associated with altering sentencing laws and the fiscal challenges posed by slowly growing state revenues that are putting a severe pinch on the availability of discretionary funds to pay for new initiatives.

Copyright 2017 State House News Service