September 13, 2017: The chances for comprehensive criminal justice reform at the State House are looking good. Nothing is certain yet, but here’s some backgound and then one thing you can do that would really help.
Background: The current plan is that the Senate and House will each pass two bills — the bill about reducing recidivism that came out of the Council of State Governments process and is sponsored by Gov. Charlie Baker, and an “everything else” bill that brings together a wide range of issues into one package. The Senate’s omnibus bill is likely to come out first, and it is likely to draw the essence of more than forty bills into one comprehensive package that includes most of what people like me have been advocating for. The House’s omnibus bill may not be as comprehensive, as the goal is to propose a bill that will get enough votes to pass, and the common wisdom is that the House is less welcoming to reforms than the Senate. It’s also really clear, though, that the grassroots advocacy and organizing of the last few years has made a difference, as legislators are now seriously considering proposals that a few years ago they would have dismissed out of hand.
What You Can Do Now: Rep. Claire Cronin, the House co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, has invited all members of the House to make an appointment to talk with her about their opinions of criminal justice reform in the next few weeks. If you think that your state rep supports criminal justice reform, please call them and ask them to talk with Rep. Cronin and tell her that they hope she will be ambitious in her proposals for criminal justice reform. (There are a few reps who seem opposed to just about everything in this space. If that describes your rep, please don’t contact them in the next few weeks — let them think about other issues and forget to talk with Rep. Cronin 🙂 .)
Thoughts about strategy: For years now, people have been working on a wide variety of bills, each of which focuses on one or a few priorities. We have tried to educate legislators and the public about these issues, why they are important, and what’s in each bill. This year dozens of bills related to criminal justice reform have been filed, and only a handful of people (primarily legislators on the Judiciary Committee and their staff) have any chance of getting on top of the contents of all of them. Dozens of these bills will feed into the House and Senate omnibus bills, which will be long and complicated. Unless your legislator is on the Judiciary Committee — and perhaps even then — trying to get them to engage with the details of a comprehensive bill is asking too much.
Instead, our role now is to raise enthusiasm for the concept of broad and ambitious criminal justice reform. If your state rep cares about specific bills and wants to ask Rep. Cronin to include them in the package bill, great. But what Rep. Cronin really needs to hear is that lots of state reps are inclined to support an omnibus bill that she brings forward, and they want her to make it strong and ambitious. She and her staff are currently working on what to include and how it all fits together. They will include more if they get the message that state reps are broadly enthusiastic about a strong reform package. And state reps are more likely to give that message if they hear it from their constituents — i.e., us.
If you don’t know your state rep’s phone number, you can look them up here: https://malegislature.gov/Search/FindMyLegislator A phone call is best, but if you can’t get yourself to place a call then an email can be helpful too.
Thank you for anything you can do!
EMIT Core member and coordinator, Mass Incarceration Working Group of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington