By Sen. Jamie Eldridge
Posted Jun. 28, 2015 at 12:49 AM
Two weeks ago, Gov. Charlie Baker had an opportunity to show leadership on an issue of civil rights, but unfortunately he sidestepped it, leaving a void on a matter of great importance to many Massachusetts residents. No, I’m not referring to his milquetoast answer on a radio show that the Confederate flag flying at the South Carolina capital was “sort of tradition or something like that.” Rather, I’m referring to the disappointing message that Gov. Baker sent when he allowed his Public Safety secretary to distance the administration from important recommendations made by the Special Commission to Study the Commonwealth’s Criminal Justice System. The special commission’s recommendations, issued the same day as Gov. Baker’s unfortunate remarks on talk radio, included repealing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses, earlier parole eligibility for certain prisoners, increasing the use of “pre-charge diversion programs,” and additional funding for prison programs that today have long waiting lists.
Gov. Baker’s silence on criminal justice reform comes at a time when more and more of the general public sees the failed approach leading to less safe neighborhoods, more economically insecure communities, and the wasting of literally hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars. According to a January 2014 poll by MassINC, 83 percent of residents polled think that sending drug users to treatment instead of prison would be effective in reducing crime, only 11 percent favor mandatory minimum sentences when presented with other options, and 67 percent would prefer to reform the criminal justice system so that fewer people are sent to prison. These opinions are especially relevant, given that the special commission, established by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2011, estimated that an additional 10,000 beds will be needed by 2020 at a capital cost of $1.3 billion to $2.3 billion and requiring an annual increase for operating budgets of up to $120 million, if the state makes no changes to its incarceration policies.
The cost of our criminal justice system, in lives lost or limited, dreams crushed, communities affected, and tax dollars spent, is something that affects every single Massachusetts resident. Against the backdrop of Gov. Baker’s Opioid Addiction Working Group final report, which proposed spending more on drug treatment, it is absolutely critical that reforming our sentencing laws go hand in hand with the working group recommendations, to create the cost savings to fund new rehabilitation programs. Further, in a state that prides itself on being the most forward-thinking, innovative, and visionary in the country, Massachusetts can no longer afford to have such a backwards prison system.
Fortunately, there is positive movement on reforming the system, both inside and outside the Statehouse. At a recent Judiciary Committee hearing, bills to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses and reform the state’s unjust pre-trial system generated a packed Statehouse auditorium, full of people eager to tell their stories. Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants testified in support of repealing mandatory minimums, pointing to racial disparities in which minorities made up 32 percent of convicted offenders in 2013 but 75 percent of those convicted of drug offenses with mandatory minimums. Representative Tom Sannicandro recited to the committee the fact that at MCI-Framingham, 40 percent of women imprisoned are just awaiting their trial, often unable to afford even modest bail. Opponents of reform underscored that Massachusetts ranks 48th out of 50 states in per capita incarceration.
However, is the best case for maintaining a cruel, counterproductive and costly system, “We’re the best of the worst?” When Gov. Baker cited this statistic as a way to distance his administration from the special commission’s recommendations upon their release, he sent a clear message that when it comes to criminal justice reform, it will be up to the people, reform advocates, and a growing bipartisan group of legislators to make real change on Beacon Hill this session.
State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, represents the Middlesex and Worcester District.