Column: Time to Tackle Criminal Justice Reform in Massachusetts

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren recently gained attention in her advocacy for civil rights when Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used arcane Senate rules to silence her during the debate over whether to confirm Jeff Sessions as U.S. Attorney General. She was silenced for reading Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter opposing Sessions’ confirmation to a federal judgeship. Many of the same issues for which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King advocated are still being debated today.

As a historical reminder, it was in Boston where Martin and Coretta met, he a doctoral candidate at Boston University and she a student at the New England Conservatory. It seems fitting that these two champions of civil rights would meet in Massachusetts, as our state enjoys a historical legacy of being at the forefront of civil rights and human rights. The first woman to legally vote in the American colonies was Lydia Taft of Uxbridge, back in 1756. Massachusetts was one of the first states to abolish slavery in the 1780s. In the middle of the 19th century, Horace Mann championed universal free public education for all children. And, of course, in recent years we were the first state to establish near universal access to healthcare and to recognize same-sex marriage.

Still, there is much progress yet to be made, particularly in the area of criminal justice reform. Consider this shocking statistic here in Massachusetts: people of color make up about 20% of our state’s population, yet almost 80% of those convicted of drug offenses are black or Hispanic, despite the fact that all races abuse drugs at roughly similar levels.

There are a number of criminal justice reform bills that have been introduced in the new legislative session on Beacon Hill that I’m proud to support. These reforms would help address racial injustice, reduce recidivism, improve public safety, lower the taxpayer-funded costs of incarceration, and significantly improve the quality of life in many of our most disadvantaged communities. These bills include:

•    Eliminating or scaling back lengthy and unfair mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
•    Raising the threshold for felony-level theft from $250 to $1,500, as the threshold in Massachusetts is currently the third lowest in the nation and hasn’t been raised in three decades. This low threshold has the effect of resulting in penalties far exceeding the crime.
•    Eliminating or lowering various fees, like the $65 per month that ex-prisoners have to pay in parole fees, and which many have great difficulty paying.
•    Reforming our bail system using evidence-based tools so people who pose little or no risk do not continue to be jailed simply because they cannot afford even small bail amounts.
•    Encouraging the diversion of non-violent defendants with substance abuse and/or mental illness to appropriate treatment programs rather than incarceration.
•    Investing in job training and other programs to assist ex-prisoners (and those at high risk of criminal behavior, particularly youth) in finding and retaining employment.

Massachusetts would hardly be the first state to implement these kinds of reforms. States such as Texas, Colorado, and Mississippi have taken steps in recent years to enact exactly these kinds of reforms. Criminal justice reform presents an excellent opportunity for bipartisan solutions.

As Dr. King said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” I believe we must continue the work of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King by tackling today’s civil rights challenge of criminal justice reform.