Time for Actual Justice in MA Criminal Justice Reform


Following the monumental passage of the omnibus criminal justice bill in Massachusetts in 2018, the mood throughout the commonwealth for continued change remains strong. Our Conference has led the way in passing a “Resolution on a Massachusetts Innocence Commission” in the 211th  Annual Meeting (2010)  followed by the resolution, “Dismantling Discriminatory Systems of Mass Incarceration in Massachusetts” in the 216th Annual Meeting (2015); and finally the resolution “Expression of Opposition to Massachusetts Sentences of Life Imprisonment Without Opportunity for Parole" in the 218th Annual Meeting (2017).
These resolutions have helped to create legislation in the 2019-2020 legislative session.

We have an excellent bill requiring that eyewitness identification be done scientifically. Among those who have been convicted of a serious crime and have later been found to be innocent, approximately 75% have been the victims of mistaken eyewitness identification. Senator Cynthia Creem has introduced S894, “An Act Improving the Accuracy of Eyewitness Identification Procedures”, which includes a double-blind process of interviewing of the eyewitness by the police, a timely interview with the eyewitness, videotaping of the interview and more, all in intricate detail. The bill can be seen here: malegislature.gov/Bills/191/SD1677.

We also have two identical bills ending life without parole, one in each house. In the great new book by Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis, The Meaning of Life, shocking statistics reveal that around the country, and in Massachusetts, as murder rates are decreasing, and mass incarceration is beginning to be reduced, the numbers of those serving life without parole are greatly increasing. Nationally, In the last 25 years, the murder rate has been cut in half, while the number of prisoners serving life without parole has increased by 328%!

How are we doing in Massachusetts? We have 1,084 inmates serving life without parole as of 2018, which comprises 13% of our state prison inmates. That percentage is the second highest in the nation! In Massachusetts we don’t kill people, we put them in prison and throw away the key.

The life without parole bills are both named “An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration”. The senate bill has been introduced by Senator Joseph Boncore and can be found at malegislature.gov/Bills/191/S826. The house bill has been introduced by Representative Jay Livingstone, and can be found at malegislature.gov/Bills/191/H3358. The bill numbers listed above are temporary. They are docket numbers, and will be changed. The titles will remain the same.

The Actual Justice Task Team urges your support for these bills. The legislators who want to hear from you are your own senator and representative. You may already know who they are, but if you are not sure, go to malegislature.gov/Search/FindMyLegislator . You may discover your representative, and very likely your senator, do not live in your city or town, but that is the person you should contact.

Cosigning is a way for legislators to show support for their colleagues’ bills. The time has expired for cosigning house bills. HD154 has a very respectable 27 cosigners. There is still time for senate bills to be cosigned, so ask your representative and senator to cosign SD1677 and SD533.

As of February 13, no assignments have been made to the Joint Judiciary Committee where all three bills will be heard. You may check the status of that committee at malegislature.gov/Committees/Joint/J19. However, senate bills can be signed as long as they are still in committee. As of October 14, 2019, three senate bills of interest to our task team have neither been sent to the floors of the house or senate nor referred for study, so they can be cosponsored. S894, “An Act Improving the Accuracy of Eyewitness Identification”, and S826, “An Act to Reduce Mass incarceration” are in the Joint Judiciary Committee. S1145,”An Act Ensuring Access to Addiction Services” is in the Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Recovery”. Please ask your representative and senator to cosponsor them.

Bill S826/H3358 had its mandatory hearing on October 8, 2019. Four members of the task team testified as well as many others, in favor of “An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration”, the bill to give every incarcerated person a parole review, effectively eliminating life without parole sentences in Massachusetts. By one count, supporters outnumbered opponents 68 to 9!

Bill S894 has not had its hearing as of October 14, 2019. This bill, if passed, would greatly reduce wrongful convictions. 75% of wrongful convictions involve faulty eyewitness identification. Various careful procedures in this bill, including videotaping of eyewitness interviews, double blind interviews where the interviewer doesn’t know who the suspect is and the eyewitness doesn’t know how many pictures will be shown, and quick interviews of the eyewitness to avoid memory loss, are only a few of the many safeguards in this bill.

Bill S1145/H1700 has not had its hearing as of October 14, 2019. It would treat men and women in need of addiction services the same. Women are treated in medical facilities, but men are treated in prisons. Under this legislation, treatment facilities would be approved by the Department of Public Health or the Department of Mental Health.

All of these bills can be followed by going to mass.gov/legislature and then selecting “Committees and Commissions” and then selecting “Joint Committee Hearings”.

If you want further information on any of these bills, or would like to attend their hearing, please contact Jon Tetherly at jctkht1104@yahoo.com or 413-594-8500. If you attend the hearing, or would like to testify, we could coordinate efforts.

Contact by constituents is very important. Please express your support with your legislators!  

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