According to Democratic state Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton, it costs about $46,000 per year for each inmate in the Massachusetts prison system and that the system is the third-costliest item in the state budget after health care and education.
Eldridge described the Massachusetts prison system as “broken” and reviewed pending legal reform legislation at a public forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters at Acton Town Hall Feb. 26. He said that a number of senators are working together to pass significant reform legislation and he identified specific bills he is working to have passed, one of which he himself introduced.
While Eldridge agreed that most people in prison deserved to be there, he said there are many who could be allowed back into the community, including those awaiting trial who cannot afford bail and others who with long mandatory minimum sentences.
“I think that we need to find a way to change that dynamic and spend more money on other purposes, including better treatment for people before they reach a point where they commit a crime where they should be in prison,” he said.
One bill under consideration is an end to mandatory minimum sentences. Eldridge said current law is overly punitive and ties the hands of judges once a person is convicted. A repeal would give discretion to prosecutors and judges and allow them to consider circumstances of the offense in their sentencing decisions while reducing the prison population and allowing offenders to be reintegrated back into society.
The second bill is to enact pre-trial bail reform. There are offenders who because of their economic circumstances cannot afford even a few hundred dollars for bail and so sit in the prison system for six months to a year awaiting trial. Eldridge noted that about 40 percent of the women in prison in Framingham, the state prison for women, have not been convicted of a crime. Those not convicted are not eligible for drug treatment or training or treatment programs and Eldridge said 90 percent of the women have children who are not getting help while their mothers are incarcerated.
“What this bill is proposing to do is to create a formula that would be much fairer and will take a significant percentage of people who are held in jail because they can’t afford bail and will allow for a better alternative that will keep the community safe and also not keep people in jail who are not a harm to anyone else,” he said.
The third bill promotes the “restorative justice” process in Massachusetts, which Eldridge described as the most powerful piece of legislation being considered. According to Eldridge, the process would focus on reconciliation through interaction between the person who caused the crime and the victim, which he said would allow the violator to become a productive citizen and not be held back from going to college or getting a job for committing a minor crime.
Detective Keith Campbell of the Acton Police Department said the department uses the restorative justice process in Acton to deal with juveniles who are having difficulty in their lives and become involved in crime. He has worked with the young people, holding them accountable for their actions, and described how he has seen a change in lives after the offenders have to face the consequences of their actions.
“I see that person go through the process. I see them at the high school three months later; they’re looking me in the eye. They’re smiling, they’re waving. They’re a different person because of this process,” he said.
The fourth bill would expunge the records of some people who served their time in jail and did their community service. The proposed law is especially focused on juveniles, and could help make it easier to find jobs once a sentence is complete.
The fifth proposed bill would allow prisoners who are elderly and near death to spend the final months of their lives in a secure hospice where they would be in contact with family members.
The sixth bill would repeal a law that passed in the 1990s requiring that those who committed a drug crime will have their license suspended for five years.
“This is a significant barrier to getting a job,” said Eldridge. “What is going to happen if they can’t get a job? They fall back into a life of crime.”
The bill would also repeal the $500 fine a person has to pay to get that license restored.Eldridge asked anyone in attendance from communities outside his district to talk to their legislators and encourage their support.
He said many legislators would not support legal reform for fear of being seen as “soft on crime” and so direct contact with their constituents is needed to overcome this opposition.
Eldridge was followed by a presentation from Erin Freeborn, executive director of Communities for Restorative Justice, who listed the three policy objectives of the restorative justice program: aiding those affected by crime, repairing damage to communities in which the criminal act occurred and reducing recidivism.
She then showed “Finding Courage,” the organizations’ video about its work which presented a dramatization of the process in which the offender faces the victim and begins the process of reconciliation.
Read the story at Acton Wicked Local here.