Criminal justice review in Massachusetts seeks shift from prisons

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BOSTON >> After being arrested and serving jail time for drug possession, Edwin Melendez said his punishment continued under a Massachusetts law that automatically suspended for up to five years the driver's licenses of people convicted of drug offenses.

"I paid my dues," Melendez told The Associated Press after watching Gov. Charlie Baker sign a bill this past week repealing the 27-year-old statute, which critics said only made it harder for ex-cons to get a job and avoid returning to crime.

"Every time I tried to remake, to change my life around, there was this barrier which was this law," said Melendez, 45, of Worcester.

The bill passed with unanimous bipartisan support in the Democratic-controlled Legislature and was hailed by Baker, a Republican, as a positive step forward for the state's criminal justice system.

The Jobs Not Jail Coalition called the old law punitive and a "relic from the War on Drugs," the 1980s-era crackdown that also produced an array of minimum sentencing requirements for drug offenders.

The coalition and other advocacy groups, joined by a growing number of Democratic lawmakers, are now pressing their cases for more wide-ranging reforms that would signal a permanent shift, both practically and philosophically, away from incarceration and toward rehabilitation. They are pinning much of their hopes on the outcome of a study of the Massachusetts criminal justice system launched last year by the Council of State Governments.

The council's Justice Center was asked by state leaders to collect data and develop policy options that reflect an overall goal of reducing state spending on prisons and putting the savings toward polices that lower recidivism rates.

The effort is hardly unique to Massachusetts. Some two dozen other states are currently or in the past decade have received assistance from the center and many have already implemented recommendations aimed at reducing inmate populations.

In Massachusetts, the center has formed data-sharing agreements with the state's court system, the Department of Corrections, the Parole Board and the Department of Mental Health, among other agencies. It expects to make a set of recommendations next year that could lead to legislation on Beacon Hill.

"We're going to see some really good work come out of that," said Senate President Stan Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat who was one of the leading proponents of the CSG review.

Rosenberg, in a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last year, said the Justice Center had helped direct more conservative states including Texas toward policies that emphasized treatment for drug offenders over incarceration.

Rosenberg is part of a steering committee for the Massachusetts study that also includes House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants and Baker, who also lauded the center's experience in other states.

"They not only have some idea about what might work, they have a ton of information about what has worked and, by the way, what hasn't," the governor said.

Baker added, however, that Massachusetts has already made "tremendous progress" on criminal justice issues over the past decade and said the state currently has the second-lowest incarceration rate per capita in the U.S. He did not commit to signing legislation that might reach his desk in the future, including any that call for repeal of mandatory minimum sentences.


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