Late last Thursday night, the Massachusetts State Senate passed comprehensive criminal justice reform legislation, that marks the biggest reform to our criminal justice system in a generation. The bill, S.2185, reverses 50-years of mass incarceration policies that have destroyed communities, ruined families, contributed to racial and income inequality, cost billions of taxpayer dollars, and eroded civil liberties in the Cradle of Liberty. Tremendous gratitude goes out to Senator Will Brownsberger, Senate chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary and primary drafter of S.2185, Senator Cynthia Creem for being such a strong partner on the bill, and to Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka for further strengthening S.2185.
As the Senate chair of the Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus (HRDLR), it was extremely moving to see every one of the HRDLR Caucus legislative priorities included in S.2185, many of which have been filed as legislation for many years. More importantly, it’s critical to remember that community groups, social justice organizations, civil liberties groups, and concerned residents from across the Commonwealth have been organizing and fighting for criminal justice reform for literally decades. Let’s never forget that the first advocates for criminal justice reform were from communities and leaders of color, many of whom have suffered the most from mass incarceration, the War on Drugs, and over-prosecution, and that their organizing will serve to benefit all of the people of Massachusetts.
A few reflections on what happened leading up to, and during, the debate on S.2185:
- Common-sense reforms based on facts, research, and popular will can be challenged by emotion, fear, and loud conservative voices. During the debate, Republican Senators filed amendments to gut virtually every provision in the forward-looking S.2185, and roll-called almost every one of those amendments. Few, if any, of these right-wing arguments were based on fact or research, but the reinforcement of a “tough-on-crime” doctrine resonated with many Democratic Senators, resulting in multiple 19-18 votes to defeat reactionary amendments. As with many issues, a relatively small number of vocal right-wing constituents can often have a great influence on legislators.
- Social justice advocates and activists cannot take anything for granted, even in the “liberal” Senate. Two weeks before the Senate debate on S.2185, the majority of criminal justice reform groups essentially decided that the Senate bill was terrific, and shifted the focus of their advocacy to the House of Representatives. On an emotional issue involving crime and punishment, this decision was presumptuous. The relative silence from advocates and constituents leading up to the Senate debate left a vacuum that was filled by sensational Boston Globe stories and advocacy from conservative District Attorneys (DAs), which reinforced the fear in the hearts and minds of many legislators that votes to decriminalize drug crimes, and reduce incarceration and prosecution would hurt them in the 2018 elections. When I arrived in the Gardner Auditorium on Thursday morning to begin debate on a truly historic bill, I expected to see the gallery full of pro-reform activists, including criminal justice reform groups with T-shirts, but instead there were only a small handful of professional advocates.
- Organization among elected officials matter. With a vocal Republican Senate Caucus and 9 of the state’s 11 DAs using fact-less fearmongering in their criticism of the bill, conservative voices by far outweighed advocacy from the left. This was made worse by silence from progressive law enforcement elected officials. Ideology aside, it’s an important reminder of how an elected official’s opinion, because she or he is elected by an often overlapping number of constituents, often carries disproportionate weight. When I asked a colleague why he was voting against the entire bill, he replied, “I like my DA.” Conclusion: more progressive elected officials need to support progressive statewide policy and the legislators who are fighting for this change. If a group of mayors or selectmen and women had written a strong letter of support for criminal justice reform, it would have had an impact on many legislators.