By Carol Rose, ACLU of Massachusetts executive director
Ordinary politicians become great leaders when they take a principled stand, even at the risk of political backlash—what President John F. Kennedy captured in the phrase “profiles in courage.”
Massachusetts voters got a glimpse of that kind of political leadership last week when Senator Cynthia Stone Creem (D-Newton), the Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, dissented from a conference committee’s approval of a crime bill that would expand unjust and wasteful mandatory sentencing, by forcing judges to impose one-size-fits-all sentences, regardless of the facts of an individual case.
At the final conference committee meeting, Senator Creem—joined by Senator Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester)—made a bipartisan show of good sense by pressing to allow at least a little judicial sentencing discretion. It would have allowed an individual offender to be parole-eligible after serving a substantial portion of the required maximum sentence, “in the interest of justice.”
Although the conference committee ultimately scrapped that provision and settled on a bill with a one-size-fits-all sentencing structure, the two Senators who tried to bring fairness and discretion back into the bill deserve our thanks. So do the six other Senators who joined Senator Creem in voting against the bill on Thursday, July 18, when the Senate passed it 31-7.
The bill is now on the Governor’s desk.
Senator Creem and those who voted with her understand that our hugely overcrowded prisons and county facilities house hundreds of individuals serving mandatory sentences. Any new law requiring more people to serve more and longer mandatory sentences will make that worse, at a cost to Massachusetts taxpayers of almost $50,000 a year, per prisoner.
Imagine how many folks could get clean and get a job if we had $50,000 to invest in rehabilitation and job training for each person, rather than incarceration. Locking people up regardless of the specific facts of their crime isn’t justice. It’s a waste, in both human and economic terms.
Sadly, so-called “tough on crime” bills can move forward through the legislative process, with woefully insufficient attention to matters of fairness that are essential for a criminal justice system.
Now it’s Governor Deval Patrick’s turn to do the right thing.
The Governor has said that he wants positive and meaningful sentencing reform, vowing that he’ll sign only a “balanced” bill. What the legislature has given him, while arguably improved over previous versions, remains way out of balance. It would take Massachusetts in the wrong direction, locking up more people without individualized determinations of justice, at extraordinary costs to taxpayers and public safety.
It’s time for Governor Patrick to exercise his leadership at this critical moment. He should reject or propose significant improvements to this legislation, not simply sign the bill before him.
In short, it’s Governor Patrick’s “Profiles in Courage” moment.