A Year of Massachusetts Criminal Justice

By Jean Trounstine

The good, the bad, and the very very ugly. These are some things that stood out for me in 2013, and with them, I wish you all a Happy New Year.

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1. Wonderful news for every prisoner who managed to get out of prison, stay out, stay clean, promote a worthy cause, get a job, heal/end negative relationships, and/or make a healthy start: bravo.

2. Thankfully Massachusetts has finally improved on a federal law. We struck down life without parole for juveniles: The ruling goes farther than the Supreme Court decision in 2012 that struck down automatic sentences of life without parole for juveniles per The Boston Globe.

3. Massachusetts raised the age of juveniles — finally — from 17 to 18. As of July, 2013, 37 other states had already raised the age so juveniles would not be tried as adults. But in Massachusetts, a child of 14 who kills can stil be tried as an adult. (What say you, progressives?)

4. Annie Dookhan went to jail for her part in the state drug lab scandal but how many assistant district attorneys did not? And why is there still such silence about this? Apparently, the moola — $8.5 million already spent to deal with this and Legislature setting aside an additional $8.6 mil — and putting innocent people behind bars and releasing people who may or may not be ready is all gonna fall on her shoulders.

5. The Department of Correction started to search visitors at state prisons with a new dreadful policy which I wrote about in October: "Prison Visitors Sniffed by Drug Detection Dogs: This isn't a Fix". And now, thanks to the fight by Lois Ahrens of The Real Cost of Prisons Project  (RCPP) and the gritty legal work of Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts (PLSMA), there's a lawsuit in the works.

6. Speaking of PLS, they were part of a campaign to end the high rates of phone calls for prisoners to contact their loved ones– a real travesty. Easthampton's Prison Policy Initiative also did important work on the prison phone industry, was mentioned in a New York Times editorial, and helped to collect 36,690 petitions to the FCC. They ruled on interstate rates on August 9th and have not yet ruled on intrastate rates.

7. Shackling female prisoners while giving birth once again came up at an important hearing held at the Massachusetts State House in December. Per the Telegram and Gazette "'It is inhumane and puts the woman's and the fetus's health at risk,' said Megan Amundson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts."18 other states ban the practice, but not Massachusetts. For more important info about this, go to The Prison Birth Project.

8. Perhaps the only good news from the horrendous three strikes bill Massachusetts passed in 2012 were some sentencing reforms for those convicted of drug crimes. As FAMM Massachusetts wrote "About 1,500 Massachusetts drug offenders became eligible for parole, either at an earlier date or for the first time ever. Other prisoners serving drug sentences have been released early because they could finally use their earned “good time” credits to shorten their sentence."

9. Of course that brings us to the Parole Board. As I wrote in "Locked Up and Nowhere to Go," our Parole Board is still not releasing prisoners at a healthy rate of parole. There are many 5 year setbacks for lifers and many instances of not following best practices around the country as the White Paper on parole showed us this year. We have an opening — still not filled in months! — and we need someone with expertise in drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

10. Meanwhile, prison construction has not stopped in Massachusetts (proposals for expanded jail in Chicopee and expansion underway in Billerica for starters), and in 2013, there began a major push by RCPP, Families for Justice as Healing, the Massachusetts Women's Justice Network and others to fight: H1434, a Bill sponsored by Rep. Kay Khan and co-sponsored by Rep. Denise Andrews and Jason M. Lewis, which says "There shall be established in Middlesex County, a Women's Pretrial Facility. Said facility shall be operated, administered and staffed by the Middlesex Sheriff. The facility shall house women convicted of a crime that provides for a house of correction sentence and women detained while awaiting trial." Lots of reasons why this makes no sense. Thanks to Lois Ahrens and Louellyn Lambros for info on this. EPOCA (Ex prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement ) is also committed and mounting a campaign for 2014 called "Jobs not Jails."

11. Many organizations also turned out this December to stand up against the use of solitary confinement in Massachusetts and support a bill co-sponsored by Sen. James Eldrige (Acton) and Rep. Elizabeth Malia (Jamaica Plain) to stop its inappropriate use. I wrote about this here after a PLS sponsored hearing earlier this year. Their testimony from the December hearing shows why Massachusetts needs to pass this bill.

I am sure that there are other notable criminal justice YESES and NOS that happened in 2013 in Massachusetts. Let me know — it's important for us to celebrate but also to keep up the pressure to change our unwieldy and often harsh criminal justice system. And to all of you and your organizations — too many to name — who are fighting to change the system in Massachusetts and elsewhere, thank you for your work. Blessings.

(First published by JeanTrounstine.com and used here by permission)