Category Archives: MA.

A landmark decision on 50th year remembrance of Martin Luther King

Great news!  Yesterday the state Senate voted unanimously for the conference committee

end mass incarceration; MLK legacy; bail reform; felony threshold

Martin Luther King Jr was honored yesterday by the Mass. Statehouse when it passed its Omnibus Bill to reform the commonwealth’s justice and corrections systems. The bill is awaiting action by Gov. Charlie Baker.

version of the criminal justice omnibus bill, and then the House voted for it 148-5.  This is fabulous!  Thank you to everyone who helped make this happen.

The next step is to get Gov. Baker to sign the bill — not send it back with amendments.
Please contact Gov. Baker in whichever of the following ways you prefer, ask him to sign the criminal justice omnibus bill without amendments, and perhaps include 1-2 sentences about why this bill is important to you (either particular provisions you care about, or that it will promote justice and compassion and true public safety, or whatever feels right to you):
+  Call his office at 617-725-4005
+  Use the webform at http://www.mass.gov/governor/constituent-services/contact-governor-office/  (ignore the “old website” warning)
+  Email his Legislative Director Kaitlyn Sprague at Kaitlyn.Sprague@state.ma.us or constituent serivices director Mindy D’Arbeloff at mindy.darbeloff@state.ma.us
+  Tweet @CharlieBakerMA
Also — Passing a bill doesn’t mean we’re done!  Laws matter, but what people are doing matters too.
The Mass Bail Fund and What a Difference a DA Makes campaign are seeking court watchers — people who get some training, commit to going to a courthouse at least three mornings in three months, and collect information that will help hold judges and prosecutors accountable.
No experience is necessary.  Some of the people receiving this email have had altogether too much experience with courtrooms, while for others this is an excellent opportunity to learn and grow personally while helping the movement.  Everyone is welcome!
The Suffolk County training will be this Sunday, April 84-6:30 p.m. at the First Baptist Church (633 Centre Street in Jamaica Plain).  Trainings for Plymouth, Hampton, and Essex Counties are scheduled for April 22May 6, and May 20.  If you live in Middlesex County, which is not one of the counties we’re focusing on, please consider helping out in Suffolk, Essex, or Worcester County.  You don’t have to attend the training in the same county where you do your court watching.
If you have some mornings free and can help in this way, please learn more and register at www.courtwatchma.org .
And may we all help keep alive Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of a world where people have quelled the triple evils of racism, militarism, and excessive materialism, and everyone has justice, peace, and the material and spiritual foundations of a good life.
Lori Kenschaft 
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CSG plugs along toward proposing reforms

In response to activists requests for justice and corrections systems reform and a plethora of bills before the state Legislature in the last 2015-16 term, Gov. Baker convened a 25- member panel of electeds and state bureaucrats. They have partnered with the Council of State Governments [CSG] to propose an omnibus bill [a multi-faced reform bill] in Jan. 2017.  What follows is an update on that process of monthly meetings from the State House News Servce, summarizing activity and research by the CSG, a neutral non-profit that advises state governments on best-practices.

By Katie Lannan
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, SEPT. 20, 2016…..Discussions of recidivism and community supervision slated for this fall are among the final steps in a process policymakers hope will result in reforms to the state’s criminal justice system.

After months studying recidivism trends, drivers of incarceration and other elements of criminal justice in Massachusetts, researchers from the Council on State Governments Justice Center plan to gather with a 25-member working group in December to go over final policy recommendations.

Those recommendations would then become the basis for legislation expected to be filed in January.

The Justice Center’s review launched after Gov. Charlie Baker, Supreme Judicial Court Justice Ralph Gants, Senate President Stan Rosenberg and House Speaker Robert DeLeo reached out in August 2015, requesting support in an effort to study the system and institute new data-driven and cost-effective practices.

In a letter to center staff, the four officials expressed hope that the the analysis would help them “better understand how we can further reduce recidivism and enable successful re-entry, and whether we can further reduce our prison and jail populations through early release programs while ensuring appropriate punishment and preserving public safety.”

Baker, Gants, Rosenberg, DeLeo and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito sit on a steering committee guiding the development of policy options.

The working group, which includes representatives from law enforcement, legal services, the judiciary, Legislature and executive branch, has held three public meetings so far, during which members have offered their reactions and suggestions to data presented by Justice Center researchers.

Three more meetings are planned for rest of the year, building towards a policy discussion before the start of the new legislative session in January.

The first, tentatively scheduled for the afternoon of Oct. 20, will explore prisoner release, reentry and recidivism, according to Justice Center spokesman Robert Busweiler.

A November meeting focused on community supervision will be followed by the December policy framework discussion, Busweiler said. Dates for those meetings have not yet been set.

Several criminal justice reform efforts this session stalled despite pushes from advocates and interest groups.

A series of Senate-backed bills — creating a medical parole program for terminally ill inmates (S 2433); raising the felony larceny threshold from $250 to $1,500 (S 2176); and a package of juvenile justice reforms including expungement of certain juvenile misdemeanor records (S 2176) — were not taken up in the House before the July 31 end of formal sessions and have remained before the House Ways and Means Committee.

New laws passed this session ended automatic driver’s licenses suspensions for most drug crimes unrelated to motor vehicles; banned the practice of sending women civilly committed for addiction treatment to a state prison in Framingham; and increased the penalties for trafficking of the opiate fentanyl.

Lawmakers have been awaiting the findings of the outside review before tackling other major justice system reforms.

Advocates, too, are watching with interest as the process enters its final months. The Jobs Not Jails Coalition, which rallied on Beacon Hill repeatedly last year in support of sentencing legislation and other reforms, is now working to determine its criminal justice priorities.

The coalition hopes to have its priorities finalized in October, and will then bring them to the steering committee of “decision makers” working with the researchers, said Lew Finfer, a coalition member and director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network.

“There’s definitely a lot of things we think about,” Finfer said. He said potential reforms could be viewed through “three frameworks” — changes that would affect people before they are incarcerated, while they are in prison, and after release.

If new laws do result from the recommendations, Justice Center staff will then work with policymakers for two to three years, developing implementation plans, providing progress reports, and testifying before relevant committees. According to a January overview of the project, the state will be able to apply for federal grants to meet “important one-time implementation needs, such as information technology upgrades and ongoing quality assurance outcomes.”

Justice Center staff also plan to help state officials identify metrics and monitoring strategies to gauge the impact of new policies on crime, incarceration and recidivism.

END
09/20/2016

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Taking My Students to Prison

By Jean Trounstine 

Every semester my students from Voices Behind Bars, a class I teach at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, go to prison. They used to visit state institutions but now that the Massachusetts state prisons do not offer tours (perhaps because it is a hassle to have outsiders trooping through them and criticizing what they see) the students take a tour of Billerica House of Correction, where they experience confinement to some degree and listen for an hour to an incarcerated man talk about his life and what it is like to be behind bars.

jail-cellOriginally, the Middlesex House of Correction was built in 1929 and housed 300 men. Now it has more than 1100, after a $37 million dollar expansion which prison officials say was to accommodate the closing of the Cambridge Jail —not without objections from activists and community members who opposed more prison building (actually costing $43 million per The Lowell Sun.)

I’ve always thought it’s not ideal to have my students learn about prison by going to a place where people are only kept for 2 1/2 years,  That’s the county sentence at a house of correction. Certainly a far cry from a life sentence. I told myself students couldn’t really learn as much about the strains of prison without seeing the harsher conditions that exist in state institutions. That is, until this last visit.

Most of the tour went as usual. We went through the older part of the facility where cells can get up to 110 degrees in the summer. We saw the visiting room where men talk to their loved ones through glass. The officer who showed the students around Billerica explained that prisoners must walk on the green stripes in the hallways; there were the usual men cleaning with mops and pushing large barrels down walkways; the smell was of too much cleaning fluid. We passed through the health unit where men were waiting to see practitioners and others were isolated in cells. It was prison as usual.

We no longer are allowed to see the Hole or what prison officials call the Segregation Unit, since men are there disciplined to solitary confinement which my students know Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently said candrive men mad. Therefore, the highlight of the tour is always taking them into what is called a “pod.” A pod is the relatively new term in prison construction where prisoners can live in a contained unit. These pods are somewhat stale and robot-like but they allow the COs the ability to see what is going on.

STV_P 0022We entered the pod where men do drug treatment and have earned some privileges. It has the reputation of being a better place to reside than the old part of the institution which is pretty grim and can house two men in a cell. To the left is one old institutional unit at Blillerica, looking a little prettier than it really is with whitewashed grey walls, all somehow devoid of color in reality:Billerica

On the pod we entered, those incarcerated run some of the addiction groups themselves, we were told. On the tier above the day room where prisoners sit, eat, and play cards at the tables, are rows of cells where men live. Also those cells are on the first floor all around the room.  Each cell has a tiny vertical slit—a window—and when we come into their space, the men inevitably stare out the window at us. At times, they’ve pounded on their doors; at other times, they’ve all been at tables eating lunch, trying to ignore the fact that there are outsiders nearby.

This time, when the twenty of us entered, there were only a few men in their brownish beige uniforms sitting at tables. Another two were talking to the guards who policed the room, two perched at a computerized station at one end. The students all took turns entering a cell to see what it is like, a rather disturbing experience on many levels for most of them. One student, we’ll call her Sofia, suddenly turned toward me as Spanish was heard above us. She pointed up at a window where a man smiled widely and pressed his face against the slit.

“That’s my brother,” Sofia said, her eyes filling with tears.

I looked up and he waved at me, his sister’s teacher. Sofia looked away.

I asked the young woman if she had known he would be here, and yes, Sofia said, she knew he was in this  facility but no, she had no idea she might see him. She seemed torn, wanting to look, wanting to hide. She said under her breath as others continued their entrance into cells, as far as she knew, he had no hope of ever not doing drugs. She’d lost touch, she said. She couldn’t imagine he might be doing OK.

But the young man’s face, lit with joy when he saw her, and before we left that unit, it was almost as if a light went off for her too. Prison became about loneliness, about being apart, about the kind of pain that happens when families break up. It was no longer just about this space or this room or that hallway. Sofia’s brother, as close as he was, was nowhere near his sister. And would not be for a long time, perhaps never. She understood that and so did I.

When we exited Billerica that day, Sofia told the other students about her brother behind bars. Now, after walking through Billerica, and after being with Sofia, they understood why prison is not just a physical place, but a deep wound.

Posted March 28, 2015 by Jean Trounstine, who is an activist, author and professor at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Massachusetts who worked at Framingham Women’s Prison for ten years where she directed eight plays with prisoners. Her highly-praised book about that work, Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison has been featured on NPR,The Connection, Here and Now, and in numerous print publications here and abroad. In addition, she has spoken around the world on women in prison, co-founded the women’s branch of Changing Lives Through Literature, an award-winning alternative sentencing program featured inThe New York Times and on The Today Show, and co-authored two books about the program. She published a book of poetry, Almost Home Free, and co-edited the New England best-seller, Why I’m Still Married: Women Write Their Hearts Out On Love, Loss, Sex, and Who Does the Dishes. Jean is on the steering committee of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety in Massachusetts and is currently working on a new book about the tragedy of sentencing juveniles to adult prisons.