Opinion: Criminal Justice Reform Lightens Up On The Little Guy

Last week, the legislature sent a broad reform of the criminal justice system to Gov. Baker with a unanimous vote in the Massachusetts State Senate and a near-unanimous vote in the House of Representatives.

The bill is about lightening up on the little guy – the person who has made some mistakes but wants to turn a corner and live right.  If possible, we want to lift that person up instead of locking them up.  And we want to cut away the web of bureaucratic entanglements that make it hard for them to get back on their feet.

For the most dangerous offenders though, the focus has to be on public protection and the bill also gives police and prosecutors a number of useful new tools.

Last fall, both branches produced and approved comprehensive criminal justice packages that examined the system from front to back.  The bills that each branch produced differed from each other in approach and in hundreds of details.

A bi-partisan, bi-cameral conference committee including three members from the House and three from the Senate (two Democrats and one Republican from each branch) spent the last four months sorting through all the pieces. We considered and discussed each piece individually and we hope we succeeded in re-assembling a balanced bill, each piece of which actually works. We hope and believe that the final bill is really a better bill than either branch started with.

On the same day that the legislature approved the results of our conference negotiations, it also voted through a bill that speaks specifically to the challenges of in-prison rehabilitation programming and the re-entry process. That bill, which grew out of negotiations in the 2015-6 session, complements the larger package.

Much of the conversation in the press over the past few years has been about a few hot-button issues, especially mandatory minimums for drug offenders. The package does knock out some of the mandatories that currently apply even to little guys who are not selling opiates. 

But people serving drug mandatory minimums account for a relatively small portion of incarceration (10 or 15 percent) at the state level and the need for reform goes beyond the problem of high incarceration rates.  The criminal justice system is a sprawling bureaucracy. As a case moves through the system, dozens of decisions get made and offenders ultimately have to work very hard to meet the sometimes-conflicting requirements of officials who control their lives.

We have passed a bill that makes responsible changes in every stage of the system to reduce the burdens that the system places on people and their families. At the same time, we have passed a bill that, in many respects, makes the public safer.

Most issues in criminal justice involve hard judgment calls and many are deeply controversial. They are the kind of difficult issues that many seek to avoid. I’m very grateful to the leadership of the House and Senate for giving us the green light to move a big bill forward. And I’m grateful to every single member of the House and the Senate for stepping up to the plate to offer creative ideas and to cast difficult votes on many complex issues.

I’ve published complete details on the package at willbrownsberger.com and will also be very happy to answer questions or hear concerns at William.brownsberger@masenate.gov or 617-722-1280.

Will Brownsberger

State Senator, Second Suffolk and Middlesex

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