Tag Archives: criminal justice

Focus Needed on Entire Criminal Justice System

When the next legislative session begins on January 2nd, you can expect to see us working on proposals that are not necessarily flashy but which are designed to address flaws in existing Massachusetts laws. For example, we will refile bills regarding the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act, the Forensic Sciences Advisory Board, and an update of certain banking laws. Our ongoing public policy agenda also focuses on continuing to work on improving our justice system as a whole. In this context, criminal justice issues become salient. As a big picture thinker, the BBA likes to tackle issues holistically.

Say the word “holistic” and healthcare springs to mind. But many of the same principles apply across disciplines.  In the medical world, a holistic approach means considering all elements of a patient’s health: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.  Patients actively participate in their own medical care by taking preventative measures. Long gone are the days when a doctor would simply prescribe a patient medication or perform an operation hoping to cure an ailment. Now, doctors and patients work collaboratively to determine the best course of action and to make healthy life choices that promote overall good health.

A similar approach should be applied to the criminal justice system. As with health, it is dangerous to ignore indicators that the system is not living up to its potential.  When something does go seriously wrong, it can take something akin to radical surgery to fix. This could mean more financial resources, more oversight, an investigation, or some other type of reform.

The justice system is complex.  It’s made up of interconnected yet individual departments, agencies, and branches.  Problems in one area will almost always have ramifications on other parts of the system. The BBA takes a holistic approach to criminal justice because success isn’t measured just by securing more resources or the passage of a single piece of legislation.  Success should also be measured by reducing our recidivism rates, improving public safety and reintegrating individuals into society.

The BBA works to identify areas for improvement that would contribute to the overall wellness of the entire system.  Over the years, the BBA’s reports and recommendations have covered a wide array of topics such as the Report of the BBA Task Force on Children in Need of Services, the Report of the Task Force on Parole and Community Reintegration, and Getting it Right: Improving the Accuracy and Reliability of the Criminal Justice System in Massachusetts.

Additionally, the BBA actively works with several outside groups tasked with identifying problems while recommending measures that would provide more efficiency to the justice system.  We have a BBA member on the Massachusetts Civil Infractions Commission – a group charged with recommending permanent changes designed to reduce the number of lesser criminal cases in which public counsel would be required.  We also have a member on the Criminal Justice Commission – a group commissioned to study and make recommendations on the entire criminal justice system in Massachusetts.

But there’s more to be done. Building on the successes over the last four years in the area of CORI reform and sentencing reform, the BBA will continue to work towards eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

The criminal justice system should function in a way that does more than just punish those who break the law. Improving public safety needs to mean more than just incarcerating people. Moving away from a philosophy of being “tough on crime” to one of being “smart on crime” requires taking a good look at the underlying problems that contribute to criminal behavior.  There needs to be a change to the culture of crime and punishment.  Fair and appropriate punishment is important, but real rehabilitation and reintegration into our society is going to be what it takes to break the cycle of recidivism.  To be “smart on crime” we need a comprehensive – and holistic – approach to improving the overall criminal justice system.

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association
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Let’s Be Smart About Sentencing and Parole

The stakes are high when we begin talking about public safety, crime prevention and the overall functioning of the Massachusetts criminal justice system.  Rhetoric like “tough on crime,” “three strikes and you’re out” and “if you do the crime, you do the time” are often bandied about when criminal justice reform appears on the horizon.

This week’s Boston Globe editorial, “Curb parole for violent crime, but rethink drug sentencing,” urged lawmakers “to create a stronger, fairer, and more economical criminal justice system.”  While saying this will necessitate an “approach that cracks down on violent offenders while taking a fresh look at nonviolent drug offenders,” the editorial  speaks to the importance of understanding the dynamic  relationship between mandatory sentencing, parole and prison cell availability.

A bit of background. . .

Even before the Boston Bar Association published its 1991 report, The Crisis in Corrections and Sentencing in Massachusetts,  the BBA has been on the forefront of discussions on how to make the MA criminal justice system more effective.  We have long taken the position that mandatory  minimums and their “one-size-fits-all” approach do not allow for judicial discretion to impose sentences that actually fit the crime.

We have yet to see the Senate bill to which the Globe editorial alludes.  All we know is that the bill is expected to be taken up for consideration and a vote by the full Senate soon.  While it’s unlikely there will be a public hearing on this particular bill, nobody can say it’s come out of left field.  Let’s review a bit of recent history:

  • December 2010 – A parolee released from a triple life sentence killed Woburn police officer Jack Maguire.
  • January 2011 – All five members of the parole board, including the Executive Director, resigned.  The governor, several legislators and a district attorney dusted off their own habitual offender bills and filed them in the legislature, producing an array of bills aimed at making changes to the current laws.
  • September – All of these sentencing bills generated hours of public testimony at a hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
  • Right now – A bipartisan group of senators, appointed by Senate President Murray over the summer, is at work producing a soon-to-be released parole bill.

What we do know from our more than 20 years of work in this area is that any parole reform or habitual offender bill that does not take into consideration mandatory minimum drug sentences is bad public policy.  Parole and habitual offender reforms should be a part of a comprehensive crime package – but one that should include sensible mandatory minimum sentencing reform for drug offenses – because of the interrelatedness of our criminal justice system’s components.  Parole reform, habitual offender legislation and sentencing reform are inextricably connected and the time has come for Massachusetts to implement measured change in this area.

 

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association
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Myths of Mandatory Sentencing

It seems everyone agrees that Massachusetts’ criminal sentencing laws need improvement.  Public safety, crime prevention, and punishment are important things to consider when contemplating any reforms in this area.  Yet it’s also important to understand that laws aimed at significantly lengthening prison sentences and making them mandatory, or changing parole eligibility, will impose more costs on our criminal justice system.

For the first time, the Legislature may be debating a habitual offender bill this session.  Earlier this week, we learned that these habitual offender bills, though seemingly losing steam after an emotional hearing before the Judiciary Committee in March, have been actively considered behind the scenes.

At the public hearing on March 16th, there were three bills under consideration that dealt with mandatory minimum sentences for serious crimes, including one that would eliminate parole for repeat violent criminals, with no regard to the facts of an individual case.  The other two bills, as currently drafted, would expand mandatory minimum sentencing to non-violent offenses including drug crimes, check fraud, and even tax evasion.  Although well-intentioned, these proposals capture crimes that, while being harmful to society, do not present a danger to the general public.

Because of time constraints, the BBA did not analyze the details of each of the bills.  But the BBA does oppose mandatory minimum sentences, with the exception of crimes mandating life imprisonment for murder.  The bills are overly broad, do not exclude nonviolent drug offenses, and would undoubtedly result in lengthy and costly sentences.  Here are some of the reasons the BBA opposes mandatory minimum sentences:

  • they have caused prison and jail overcrowding;
  • they have resulted in an increase in court congestion;
  • they have not reduced our serious crime problem;
  • criminal sentences need to correspond with each offender’s individual culpability and still give judges discretion.

Mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases are notoriously unjust because the laws do not differentiate between the drug kingpin and the first time drug offender.  As a result, prisons are being filled with low-level drug offenders serving protracted sentences.

Currently in Massachusetts, convicted felons are eligible for parole after serving half of their sentence, except for first-degree murderers, who are not eligible for parole.  Those convicted of second-degree murder must serve 15 years of a life sentence before they are eligible for parole.

By failing to take a nuanced approach we could end up with very serious and unintended consequences.  Massachusetts needs to be both tough, but also smart, on crime.

Any habitual offender law that the Legislature considers needs to be drafted so that only the most violent offenses are targeted.
– Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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BBA Will Make its Voice Heard Re: Probation Reform

The Boston Bar Association (“BBA”) is often asked why we weigh in on some topics and not on others.  The short answer is we are interested in speaking up on issues that have an effect on the practice of law or the administration of justice.  In reality, it’s not that simple.  Getting to the point where we can voice our opinion or share our position involves a careful process.  Sometimes that process is anticipatory while other times it is reactive.

For example, last week’s blog post described one instance where the BBA was pre-emptive and got out front on an issue.  Our members identified an area, updating state consumer debt collection regulations, in which their expertise could be put to use.  Almost all of the recommendations our members made were adopted by the Attorney General’s Office and they are now in the process of promulgating the new regulations.

Next week, on March 30th, the BBA will testify before the Judiciary Committee at a public hearing on probation.  In this instance, the BBA’s involvement has consisted of a measured review and response to the legislation filed by Governor Patrick in January.  This legislation was filed in the wake of the patronage scandal in the Massachusetts Probation Department and the tragic murder of Woburn police officer John Maguire.  Following the death of Officer Maguire, there was a loud and justifiable clamor for immediate review and reform of the department.

The reason the BBA decided to step into the debate is that the proper management and governance of probation is vitally important to the administration of justice.  The final probation reform legislation is sure to have a significant impact on the practice of law and the administration of justice in Massachusetts.

Once the governor’s legislation was filed, BBA President Don Frederico appointed a Council-level study group consisting of a wide range of federal and state prosecutorial and public defense experience.  After weeks of review, which included meeting with experts in the field, thoughtful study and debate, the BBA Council endorsed the study group’s position articulating the guiding principles that the BBA believes any probation reform legislation should be based on.

The study group never set out to correct all of the problems identified in the Ware Report.  Instead, it recognized that there is no one way to solve these issues.  The Legislature needs the freedom to install a system that remedies the problems plaguing the department.

This recent crisis provides an opportunity to make critical changes to the Probation Department.  The BBA hopes that the study group’s principles will help shape criminal justice reform and lead to a more efficient department while improving public safety.

-Kathleen Joyce

Government Relations Director

Boston Bar Association

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