Category Archives: racism

Statehouse rally Oct 12, reform in reach

Some degree of comprehensive criminal justice reform in Massachusetts is likely in the next few months.  The question is how much.

The MA State Senate is expected to vote on its omnibus bill, S.2170, sometime in the next two weeks, perhaps on October 19th.  The House omnibus bill will probably be reported out shortly after that, and Speaker DeLeo said he hopes it will be voted on and the two bills sent to a conference committee before Thanksgiving.  Depending on how arduous that process is, we might have comprehensive criminal justice reform in Massachusetts by the end of December.  Exciting times indeed!

The biggest dangers here are that the Senate bill may be weakened by amendments, the House bill might be a lot weaker than the Senate bill, and the resulting law might not have much impact.

There may also be an opportunity to strengthen the Senate bill, especially its provisions regarding the conditions of solitary confinement.

If the proposed MA Senate omnibus became law, it would improve thousands of people’s lives.  Among other things, it would:

+  Reduce fees, fines, and other collateral consequences that trap people in a cycle of poverty and recidivism;
+  Raise the age for being tried as an adult to 19, with a mechanism to consider raising it to 20 or 21 in the future;
+  Promote the use of restorative justice;
+  Repeal mandatory minimums for lower-level drug offenses;
+  Expand eligibility for diversion to drug treatment;
+  Implement the SJC ruling that bail must be affordable;
+  Raise the felony larceny threshold from $250 to $1,500, in keeping with other states;
+  Allow records to be sealed after 3 years for misdemeanors and 7 years for felonies;
+  Restrict the use of solitary confinement and improve its conditions;
+  Provide for medical release of people who are incapacitated or terminally ill; and
+  Decriminalize disturbing a school assembly and sexual activitiy between young people close in age, also know as the Romeo and Juliet provision.

Six things you can do to help make real reform a reality:

(1)  Come to a rally for criminal justice reform today — Thursday, October 12 — 11 a.m. on the grand staircase in the State House.

(2)  Call or email your state senator and ask them to vote for the criminal justice reform omnibus bill, S.2170, without amendments that would compromise its goals.  You could add a request that they support amendments that would further improve the conditions of solitary confinement.

(3)  Call or email your state representative and ask them to make sure that Rep. Claire Cronin, the House Judiciary Committee co-chair, knows that they support a strong omnibus bill.  You could add that you hope the House bill will include some or all of the priorities listed above.  (You can look up your legislators at https://malegislature.gov/Search/FindMyLegislator .)

(4)  Send letters to the editor to your local paper explaining why you think these issues are important and supporting the Senate omnibus bill.

(5)  Write supportive comments (questions are fine too) on Sen. Will Brownsberger’s blog at https://willbrownsberger.com/senate-criminal-justice-reform-package/

(6)  Share this information with your friends (by social media, email, or good old-fashioned conversation) and tell them you’re excited by this opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives.

Lori Kenschaft

On behalf of EMIT leadership team

EMIT — End Mass Incarceration Together
a statewide grassroots all-volunteer working group of Unitarian Universalism Mass Action Network

The only way to reform our state’s judicial and corrections systems is through a number of bills passed over several years.
This requires regular contact with your state legislators.

​EMIT
End Mass Incarceration Together
a statewide grassroots volunteer
working group of Unitarian Universalist Mass Action Network
http://www.endmassincarcerationtogether.wordpress.com

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Prisons becoming nursing homes

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The Sentencing Project logo
A new report by The Sentencing Project, Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences, finds a record 206,268 people serving life with parole, life without parole, or virtual life sentences in 2016—one of every seven people in prison.

The report, authored by senior research analyst Ashley Nellis, provides a comprehensive analysis of individuals serving life sentences, including the first-ever census of those serving “virtual life” sentences of 50 years or more. Extreme prison sentences are a nationwide phenomenon, but in eight states — Alabama, California, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New York, and Utah — at least one of every five prisoners is serving a form of life in prison.

Racial disparity in the prison population is also a hallmark of mass incarceration and the composition of the population serving life reflects this stark disproportionality. Indeed, one in five African Americans in prison is serving a life or virtual life sentence. In Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, and South Carolina, two-thirds or more are African American.

The report concludes with recommendations to address the outsized life and virtual life population:

  • Eliminate life without parole and dramatically scale back other life sentences;
  • Improve the process of parole;
  • Increase the use of clemency and authorize other mechanisms to adjust overly punitive sentences.

We hope you will help us spread the report’s eye-opening findings about the United States’ historic incarceration levels and advocate for change.

While ‘affluenza’ teen went free, similar case led to prison

This Jan. 27, 2016 photo shows Jaime Arellano during an interview in the visitor’s room at the… Read more  [This story courtesy of The Marshall Project and the Associate Press]. 

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — One 16-year-old drove drunk, ran a red light and crashed into a pregnant woman’s car, killing her and her unborn child. Another drunken teenager rammed a pickup truck into a crowd of people assisting a stranded driver, killing four.

Jaime Arellano went to prison. Ethan Couch went free.

The stories of the two Texas teens illustrate how prosecutors’ decisions in similar cases can lead to wildly different outcomes. The poor immigrant from Mexico has been behind bars for almost a decade. The white kid with rich parents got 10 years of probation.

 Couch lost control as he drove his family’s pickup truck after he and his friends had played beer pong and consumed beer that some of them had stolen from Wal-Mart. The vehicle veered into a crowd of people helping the driver on the side of the road. Authorities later estimated that he was going 70 mph in a 40 mph zone.

The crash fatally injured the stranded motorist, a youth minister who stopped to help her and a mother and daughter who came out of their nearby home.

But prosecutors in Fort Worth said they didn’t ask to have his case moved to the adult system because they thought the judge would refuse. Instead, he stayed in juvenile court and became infamous for his psychologist’s assertion that his wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility the psychologist called “affluenza.”

Arellano was charged with intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault, the same counts against Couch. But prosecutors in Arellano’s case moved quickly after his June 2007 crash to send him to adult court. Arellano took a plea deal and got 20 years in prison, where he remains today.

Sending Arellano’s case to the adult system opened the door to the kind of punishment many say Couch should have received from the beginning.

Matt Bingham, the Smith County district attorney and head of the office that prosecuted Arellano, declined to comment on Couch’s case but said he considered adult prison to be a fair option for any teenager who has killed someone.

Juveniles don’t always commit “what people think of as juvenile crimes,” Bingham said. “There is an appropriate punishment for what they have done. And the fact that they’re 16 years of age doesn’t negate that.”

Arellano could never have argued he had “affluenza.”

Arellano and his family crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally two years before the crash and settled in East Texas. He spoke little English and had little knowledge of the court system. Five months before the crash, he dropped out of high school.

Now 24, he spoke to The Associated Press about his case from behind a narrow glass partition at a Texas prison. Wearing a white inmate uniform, he spoke in soft, accented English that he said he learned while in prison.

Arellano had his first beer at 15 and had driven drunk a few times before. His parents tried to stop him from driving under the influence, but he said he wouldn’t listen.

“They talked to me way too many times,” he said. “But I just didn’t want to hear it.”

On the night of June 23, 2007, Arellano was driving an SUV through Tyler, about 100 miles east of Dallas, on his way to a party. He had an open beer and several more in a cooler.

Witnesses saw him swerve through the intersection and slam into a Ford Mustang making a left turn ahead, according to police reports.

Driving the Mustang was Martha Mondragon, a 31-year-old woman who was nine months’ pregnant. Mondragon and the child she was carrying were killed. Her 6-year-old daughter flew out of her booster seat and through a car window. She was hospitalized and survived.

Prosecutors quickly sought to have Arellano’s case moved to adult court, and a judge agreed.

At that point, Arellano faced two choices: a plea deal with the promise of 20 years in prison and possible parole after a decade, or a jury trial in one of the most conservative regions of the United States and the risk of 50 years in prison. He took the plea.

While he once thought he might have gotten probation if he were white, Arellano said he doesn’t feel that way today.

“I know it was serious,” he said. “It had to happen this way so I could better myself, so I could think better.”

Arellano becomes eligible for parole next year. Once released, he expects to be deported to Mexico, where he hopes to work on a ranch.

Couch faces possible detention for violating his probation when he returns to court on Feb. 19. Depending on the judge’s ruling, he could get three months in jail and adult probation, which if violated could land him in prison for up to 40 years.

In the juvenile system, intoxication manslaughter cases in Texas over the last decade were just as likely to result in probation as they are detention, according to figures from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Juvenile justice experts say the state’s juvenile system places more weight on rehabilitation than the adult system, where punishments are tougher.

Since 2005, Texas has prosecuted 38 juveniles for intoxication manslaughter or intoxication assault. Only three were sent to the adult system, and half of all cases resulted in probation of some kind.

Those numbers do not include juveniles who commit similar offenses but might be charged with different crimes or cases not reported by local authorities to the state.

Once juveniles are in detention, it’s more likely than not that they will go free when they turn 19. Only 33 percent of all juvenile offenders are sent to adult prison, according to a study of juvenile sentencing conducted by the University of North Texas professor Chad Trulson.

Trulson said a probation sentence for killing four people might seem “absurd” to the average person.

But in the juvenile system, he said, that type of sentence for intoxication manslaughter and potentially more serious offenses “is probably more typical than we would think.”

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Follow Nomaan Merchant on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nomaanmerchant .

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This story has been corrected to show that Mondragon was 31, not 33.

Visit your state rep to inform to reform — IT WORKS!

From Judy Gates of Marblehead

We can write letters, go to meetings, contribute money, but there’s no real substitute for face-to-face encounters.  That was evident to me again when I joined Susan Tordella of EMIT and two other activists at the State House last Thursday to visit members of our legislature in support of Bail Reform and ending Mandatory Minimum sentencing for drug crimes.  These are two pieces of legislation being considered by our state legislators, and are co-sponsored by many members of the bi-partisan Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus.

Upon arriving at a legislator’s office, we asked to meet with an aide and who in the office had read “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander.  EMIT gave a copy of to all legislators last year. I was pleased that almost everyone was familiar with the book and that often more than one in the office had read it or were in the process of reading it.

The good news is that everywhere we went, searching out offices even in obscure corners of the State House, we found people willing to listen, who appreciated our fact-sheets on the two bills, and many asked questions.

As Susan says, it is essential to “Inform to Reform.”   As someone deeply committed to reform of our broken criminal justice system, I am encouraged by the rising level of concern across our country and the increased media coverage on the need for criminal justice reform.

The bottom line is that we need to make our voices heard and one of the best ways is to make an appointment with your state rep or senator, and/or walk into a legislator’s office and speak face-to-face to an aide or legislator.  Building relationships in this direct way can make a major impact on passing these laws and relieving suffering for millions of people.  I’m grateful to have been a part of it last week.

See you in the Beacon Hill lobby Tuesday June 10

The term “lobbyist” originated in Massachusetts when people who wanted to influence legislators waited in the “lobby” outside of the Senate and House chambers.

On Tuesday, June 10, from 10 am to 3 pm, a group of activists will be hanging around the Statehouse lobbies, elevators and stairwells to ask, “Do you work here?”

If the answer is “yes,” we want to know:

For which legislator do you work?

Did your office receive the “New Jim Crow” on April 30 when volunteers delivered a copy of the landmark book by Michelle Alexander to every member of the Mass. House and Senate?

Did s/he read it? Did the legislator read it?

What did you think of it?

Did you know you can view videos of Michelle Alexander on you tube?

5 minute Colbert interview

23 minute TedX Talk

52 minute address to Riverside Church

Does the legislator know about the bipartisan Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform caucus led by Rep. Sannicandro and Sen. Eldridge?

Will anyone from the legislator’s office be attending the June 24 briefing in Room 437 of the Statehouse, 11:30 am to 1 pm, featuring a speaker who recovered from drug addiction? EMIT, End Mass Incarceration Together, a Unitarian Universalist Task force of UU Mass Action, provides a free lunch. Hope to see you there.

Contact me if you want to join us in our informal lobbying on June 10. susan . tordella @ g mail . c o m   978-772-3930. Come for as much time as you can spare. We’ll be going in pairs.

Racism behind mass incarceration

Black men under age 35 who did not finish high school are more likely to be behind bars than employed in the labor market.

That sentence was buried halfway down in an announcement from the National Academies Press of the publishing of this report: “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences.”

These facts also grate at me, especially the third:

1. With the inclusion of local jails, the U.S. penal population totals 2.2 million adults, the largest in the world; the U.S. has nearly one-quarter of the world’s prisoners, but only 5 percent of its population.
2. Nearly 1 in 100 adults is in prison or jail, which is 5 to 10 times higher than rates in Western Europe and other democracies.
3. Of those incarcerated in 2011, about 60 percent were black or Hispanic.

The systematic racism throughout our country’s criminal justice system that created this “New Jim Crow,” outrages and frustrates me. The frustrations are that the system is so complex that it will take a series of laws and new policies and practices over the next five to ten years to change such a behemoth, and worse, MOST PEOPLE don’t know about the epidemic of mass incarceration, and if they do know about it, don’t act.

This issue hits close to home for me because I have volunteered in prisons since 2009, co-founding eight Toastmaters programs in men’s and women’s prisons. I know many people impacted by the politics, racism and classism that has delivered the New Jim Crow. I knew many black males in high school in Wilmington, Del. and often wonder if they were snagged in the net of imprisonment, that sends one in three black men to prison.

To take action in Massachusetts, contact me or start looking around in your area for others who are working on untangling the web of injustice created by the war on drugs. susan dot tordella at g mail dot com .

Copies of The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences are available from the National Academies Press at www.nap.edu or by calling tel. 202-334-3313or 1-800-624-6242