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Justice Report Focuses On Recidivism, But Advocates Say It Overlooks Sentencing Reforms03:21Download

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As a special report examining the state's criminal justice system nears completion, advocates for offenders fear the report will not go far enough to address issues they say are in need of reform, including mandatory minimum sentences and excessive supervision of inmates released from jail.

These advocates brought their concerns to the final meeting Wednesday of a working group tasked with making recommendations to the full Legislature.

After sitting quietly for more than an hour as the working group discussed an interim report, about two dozen protesters erupted into the chant "jobs, not jails," urging the group to consider more programs to keep people out of prison in the first place.

Calvin Feliciano (far right), deputy political director for SEIU 509, interrupted Wednesday's meeting of a criminal justice working group to express the need for sentencing reforms and led protesters in a "jobs, not jails" chant. (Antonio Caban/SHNS)
Calvin Feliciano (far right), deputy political director for SEIU 509, interrupted Wednesday's meeting of a criminal justice working group to express the need for sentencing reforms and led protesters in a "jobs, not jails" chant. (Antonio Caban/SHNS)

A frustrated Calvin Feliciano, of Boston, spoke out to the panel.

"All we want to do is work. That's all we want to do is work. We don't want to be in jail. We don't want to live a life of crime," he said. "If we have the option to work and be productive members of society, we will. That's what we've done whenever we get that chance. That's all that we've done."

For the past year, the Council of State Governments Justice Center has been taking a close look at incarceration data. The interim report finds recidivism is the root of much of the criminal justice system's woes.

People with previous convictions are responsible for three-quarters of new sentences. Because of that, the report outlines a variety of steps the state should take to reduce recidivism, including expanding programs such as substance abuse and anger management, to help incarcerated individuals while they are still behind bars.

It is also calling for hiring more probation officers. That's something that concerns Feliciano, who said he first went to jail when he was 13 years old. He said that proposal misses the point.

"They want to supervise more of us. They want to hire more probation and parole officers. They want to do a little bit on drug treatment, when the reality is that it's poverty, it's people that aren't working, and those people are going to jail," Feliciano said. "And that's all we want to do is be able to work."

The interim report stressed not all ideas presented will proceed to the final policy package and new ideas may emerge. One of the members of the working group, state Sen. Will Brownsberger, of Belmont, said the panel is taking to heart the concerns.

"It's a message I'm very sympathetic with. It's where I'm coming from. But the question of what this panel does, this panel has a defined scope and the process isn't over," Brownsberger said. "The legislative process continues after that, so I certainly hope those concerns raised by the folks are addressed, but it may or may not be addressed in the product of this panel."

But Boston state Rep. Byron Rushing, who is not a member of the working group, said legislators are ready to address criminal justice, but thinks they will be reluctant to revisit it over and over again to make revisions.

"So the closer we can come to one proposal, one comprehensive bill, the better we're going to be. Rather than to say the second, third and fourth versions will be coming up later," he said.

The working panel is expected to release its final report soon after the new year. It will be the basis for a criminal justice legislative package.

But advocates for offenders say they too will work with other legislators to introduce legislation that addresses issues such as mandatory minimum sentences for drug convictions.

This segment aired on December 22, 2016.

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Steve Brown Twitter Reporter/Anchor
Steve Brown is a veteran broadcast journalist who serves as WBUR's State House reporter.

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