Gonzalez aims for "fairer and safer" system with justice reforms


BOSTON — Democrat Jay Gonzalez, in a pitch for comprehensive criminal justice reform that could appeal to the progressive wing of his party, called Thursday for the elimination of nearly all mandatory minimum sentences in Massachusetts.

Gonzalez, who is one of three declared Democratic candidates for governor in 2018, put forward a package of policy prescriptions to address problems he sees in the state's prison system, including over-incarceration and lack of adequate supports and treatment options for inmates to prevent reoffending.

The policy paper goes beyond what Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, and some Democratic leaders in the Legislature are eyeing in the wake of a Council of State Governments review of the state's criminal justice system.

"I'm not satisfied with the status quo. We can't just take half measures. If I'm elected Governor, I will work with the Legislature, stakeholders and families impacted by violent crime to reform our system to make it fairer and safer for everyone," Gonzalez wrote in an email to his campaign list.

Gonzalez said all mandatory minimum sentences, except those imposed for murder, should be eliminated. His campaign identified mandatory minimums as "another driver of our state's overincarceration trends, particularly for drug-related crimes." When taken as a whole, he said the application of mandatory sentences to some crimes and not others shows "very little rationality."

Crimes ranging from reproductive cloning to the possession and sale of assault weapons, drug trafficking and the rape of a child all carry mandatory minimum sentences in Massachusetts, which opponents argue unfairly handcuffs judges when handing down sentences. Simple drug possession charges in Massachusetts do not carry mandatory minimum sentences.

According to Gonzalez, 40 percent of all state prison inmates are serving mandatory minimums. Reducing drug-related incarcerations to 1990 levels, the Needham Democrat said, could save the state $35 million annually.

Gonzalez released his criminal justice platform days ahead of Saturday's state Democratic Party Convention in Worcester where all three declared candidates for governor will be speaking to party activists.

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"A well-functioning criminal justice system should punish the crime and rehabilitate the person to prevent future crime...and to make our communities safer. It should be grounded in evidence and science, operating on fact rather than fear and treating all who encounter it equitably, without regard to race or income," Gonzalez said in a statement.

Gonzalez's campaign said that Massachusetts spends $1.2 billion each year on incarceration, and long-term incarceration rates have climbed 236 percent since 1980, while violent crimes are down 26 percent.

The plan calls for expanding the jurisdiction of the juvenile courts to defendants aged 20 or younger, and allowing the expungement of juvenile records in certain cases. It also proposes to increase the monetary threshold for felony larceny above $250, expand the use of specialty courts, allow for medical parole of terminally ill prisoners, and to offer employers incentives for hiring ex-offenders.

Gonzalez said that when adjusted for inflation since 1987 — the last time the felony larceny statute was adjusted — the threshold should be closer to $1,000.

The former state budget chief said the savings from lower inmate populations could be invested into education and addiction and mental illness treatment programs for those behind bars.

Top state leaders engaged the Council of State Governments to review the state's criminal justice system and make recommendations. That report became the basis for legislation filed by Gov. Charlie Baker to expand the use of "good time" credits for inmates to reduce their period of incarceration by participating in jail and prison programs aimed at lowering recidivism rates and making the transition back into the community easier for offenders.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo has called the governor's bill a "great start," and suggested he may prefer to tackle that legislation first before considering other proposals, while progressive leaders in the House and Senate have pleaded with leadership to not miss the moment and consider a more comprehensive overhaul of the system this session.

Gonzalez supports the expansion of "good time" credits for early parole, and wants to eliminate the practice of cash bail and incarceration based on a person's inability to pay court fees and fines.

He also wants to reform criminal offender record laws to allow histories to be sealed in shorter amounts of time so that those with records can more easily obtain work and housing.


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