We’re at a critical moment for criminal justice reform

By Sonia Chang-Díaz

Thanks to years of significant public pressure, the Legislature is now preparing to take action on criminal justice reform. This is a pivotal moment, and it may not come again for many years.

The Senate recently released a much-anticipated criminal justice reform package that is scheduled to be voted upon by the end of the month. It doesn’t go as far as other states on community reinvestment or repealing mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, but it’s a sincere compromise, with solid reform elements and comprehensive breadth.

This legislation will unquestionably make our justice system fairer and more effective.

Over the last 40 years, we have given huge power to district attorneys when it comes to sentencing – and with that authority they oversaw a system that grew into a costly, ineffective, and racist mess. Today, Massachusetts locks up more than five times the number of people that we incarcerated in the 1970s. If our Commonwealth were a nation, it would rank in the top 15 percent of countries for incarceration. And, insidiously, while black and Latino people make up less than one-fifth of the total state population, they make up 75 percent of those who get mandatory minimum drug sentences.

In my district, I see whole city blocks where families are eroded from their full strength because brothers, mothers, fathers, and sisters are gone for years at a time, and come back more broken than they were when they went into the prison system. We suffer mightily from the drug trade in Boston. But has the quintupling of our jailed population in Massachusetts solved that problem?

Then there are the monetary costs. On any given day, there are approximately 20,000 people incarcerated across the Commonwealth. You and I spend $53,000 per inmate per year to imprison these men and women.

These policies – so expensive in dollars and in human lives – have little to show for themselves in terms of safety outcomes. More than 40 percent of former inmates re-offend after they are released, and drug addiction is no less prevalent since the current policies began 40 years ago.

Saying “we’re getting tough on those drug dealers” feels good politically, but it does nothing to solve the problem.

Our state is wasting precious resources on a system that isn’t just and doesn’t work. There are fairer, more effective options. We can return authority to judges so that they can consider the facts of each case, and we can equip them with more tools to divert those who need treatment and rehab. We can use public resources responsibly on those sentences and programs that fit the crime and that prevent crime where we know we can. We can save millions of dollars by re-deploying those savings to ensure our neighborhoods are well-served when ex-offenders return to them.

For years, grassroots activists and their allies in the State House have advocated for these crucial reforms. And for years, we have been told to wait.

We can’t wait anymore.

I urge you to be impatient and hold your elected officials accountable –for delivering not just half-measures that provide political cover, yet leave fundamental problems in place, but true reform.

Sonia Chang-Díaz is a state senator representing the Second Suffolk District.