Eldridge: “Today we are promoting smart-on-crime policies by beginning to redefine the justice in criminal justice”

I was proud to speak in support of the comprehensive criminal justice reform package passed by the Massachusetts Senate last Thursday, October 26th. Below is a transcript of my floor remarks during the bill’s debate – Jamie.

“Mr. President, I rise to speak in favor of this bill.

I want to start by thanking my colleagues for their dedication to reforming our often destructive criminal justice system.

In particular, I want to offer my highest praise to the gentleman from Belmont, Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee, for drafting a comprehensive bill touching almost every component of the judicial system.

And, I want to commend the lady from Newton, for her many, many years of advocacy of making Massachusetts a more just society, especially those whose voice is not often heard.

I also want to thank the lady from Ashland, the Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman, for further strengthening the bill.

As my colleagues are considering the amendments before them today, and this bill as a whole, I would remind them that our role as legislators is not just to look out for the will of the majority, but also to protect the rights of the minority and ensure that all government officials including prosecutors, treat people fairly, and yes, with justice.

That’s why this is such an extremely important moment in Massachusetts history, and for the Massachusetts State Senate.

As the Senate Chair of the Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus, I want to recognize the advocates, activists, impacted families, and legislators who have worked tirelessly for decades to eliminate the institutional classism and racism that still exists in society and government today.

This landmark legislation could not have been proposed without the organized effort of hundreds of community groups, and thousands of residents who have been fighting for decades for a more fair and rehabilitative criminal justice system that appropriately addresses crimes while reducing recidivism.

Mr. President, it is often said that the criminal justice system is broken. I would respectfully suggest, Mr. President, that while the system does not work well for the vast majority of Massachusetts residents, it is accomplishing exactly what its architects intended.

Whether we’re talking about weakening public safety, increasing drug addiction and mass incarceration, or the erosion of basic civil liberties of our constituents…

Whether we’re talking about mandatory minimum drug sentences that overwhelmingly punish communities of color…

Or the creation of multiple fines to fund our courts and our jails that almost always burden poor people…

Or indiscriminate power granted to prosecutors that has the ability to ruin lives…

The current criminal justice system was designed to appease the wealthy elite, generate profits and wages for the prison-industrial complex, and keep working class and poor people oppressed in society.

And in that, the system has succeeded with cruel, surgical efficiency.

That’s why our prison population has increased four-fold since the 1970s.

That’s why we spend more than 1 billion in tax dollars each year on failed policies.

That’s why we have an embarrassingly high recidivism rate, especially when it comes to young people.

When our tax dollars do not rehabilitate and help past offenders land on their feet, an endless cycle of crime and incarceration results.

Our laws have limited the freedom of tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents and they have overwhelmingly punished working class and poor families.

As elected officials, we are repeatedly invoking the word “freedom.” Freedom has been an integral part of our nation’s spirit and today we have a chance to expand freedom in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The bill before us will do many things, Mr. President.

It establishes restorative justice statewide. This is a powerful and effective program and an idea that I have seen up close that works for both responsible parties and victims.

It creates the kind of justice in society that reduces harm, increases personal responsibility, and guides people who have made a mistake in their lives to become more productive citizens.

This legislation will ensure a more humane treatment of prisoners by limiting the use of solitary confinement. It is my belief that solitary confinement is a violation of human rights.

By improving living conditions and programming opportunities for prisoners in isolation, and creating robust reporting requirements on the use of solitary in the state, we can put Massachusetts on a path to end solitary confinement.

Finally, Mr. President, by repealing mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug offenses, this bill will allow judges to give sentences that are proportional to the crimes committed.

As someone who has sat in a prison visiting lobby with constituents at MCI-Concord and MCI-Framingham who were rotting in jail for five, ten, fifteen years, for nonviolent drug crimes, I hope that my colleagues can properly appreciate how deeply disturbing a mandatory minimum drug sentence is.

Getting to this historic piece of legislation has not been easy, and we will continue to face obstacles in the shape of status quo prosecutors and politicians using fear-mongering to stop these long-needed reforms.

We will continue to hear from those who want to perpetuate these failed policies.

And that’s why, Mr. President, we have to continue being vigilant about policies that target low-income communities and the working class.

Today we are promoting smart-on-crime policies by beginning to redefine the justice in criminal justice.

We are finally beginning the dismantling of the failed war on drugs, of mass incarceration, of punitive sentencing and incarceration.

Thank you Mr. President, for your leadership on this bill, and I urge my colleagues to vote for this bill, at the conclusion of today’s debate.”

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