Slew Of Mass. Criminal Justice Reform Proposals Teed Up For Debate

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Fatal police shootings by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, and other parts of the U.S. have sparked initiatives across the country to reform the criminal justice system, including here in Massachusetts.

One sign of the increasing questions about law enforcement post-Ferguson is the number of criminal justice reform proposals. Here in Massachusetts, most of those proposals end up before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, which holds a marathon hearing Tuesday.

A Plan To Decriminalize Some Student Behavior

Especially emotional testimony is expected on a plan to decriminalize some student behavior in schools.

Naia Wilson, the headmaster of Boston's New Mission High School, became passionate about the issue in 2006 after she saw her school police officer wrestle a student to the ground.

"I was in my office and I heard my secretary yelling and I heard the wrestling," she said. "And when I opened the door they were on the floor."

The 15-year-old student was handcuffed and taken to court.

"My first reaction was, 'Oh my God ... take the handcuffs off,' you know, 'you don't need to do this.' It was shocking," Wilson said. "I'm not squirmish, but it was upsetting. Everybody was upset."

Wilson was further upset was when she found out that the incident involved an argument that the arrested student had with another student in the cafeteria — something she says school staff likely could have handled easily.

"We did determine that it was not a violent crime at all, that it was really about disrespectful behavior," Wilson said.

"This is really a key moment for criminal justice reform in the commonwealth's history."

Matt Segal, ACLU of Massachusetts

One of the sponsors of the bill decriminalizing some student behavior is Democratic state Sen. Patricia Jehlen, of Somerville, who says overzealous policing in schools is a statewide issue.

"We know that some of the kinds of things that kids are arrested for now in school wouldn't have happened a few years ago," Jehlen said.

But some law enforcement officials say legislation that would decriminalize nonviolent and verbal student misconduct would only limit officers' ability to do their jobs.

Norwood Police Chief Bill Brooks, with the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, says for some kids, court involvement helps.

"Sometimes the justice system is useful, in that it provides some leverage, it applies some oversight outside the school setting," he said. "We should have that option. Police don't use it that often, so to take it completely away to me seems kind of an overreaction, to be honest with you."

Examining Police-Involved Killings

However, Brooks agrees with another criminal justice reform proposal from Jehlen — which the committee does not take up Tuesday. It calls for wading into the controversy over tracking and investigating police-involved killings.

"It doesn't matter how many incidents there are, it matters what the incidents are and that those cause people to worry about police. And they shouldn't have to worry about the police," the senator said.

Because of the lack of statistics on police-involved killings, various groups and advocates are counting them themselves.

In a recent visit, Jamarhl Crawford pointed to news stories about the 1980 police shooting of 14-year-old Levi Hart. Hart was shot by an officer chasing him and two other teens who stole a car. A judge later ruled that the police officer acted unlawfully.

The case prompted Crawford to start putting together a list of police-involved killings around Boston. At his home in Roxbury, he spends several hours a week working on what he calls his obsession: his website, Blackstonian. The site includes a list that Crawford compiled using social media and traditional news sources.

"So the list grows but the one thing that we can see that is common is that overwhelmingly these are black men," Crawford said. "Black men as young as, you know, 14 to as old as 75."

His list contains the names of 31 people killed by police since 1972 — and Crawford knows that's nowhere near comprehensive. But he says documenting the problem may help understand it — and it might contradict claims from some Boston officials that racism is not as much of an issue with police here compared with other parts of the country.

"Here is Boston, with this legacy of racism, we would be foolish to think that the Boston Police Department doesn't have any problems," Crawford said. "Everywhere else in the country has problems with race. But in Boston? 'No problems here.' It's just illogical."

Just this month, Boston police promised new polices and provide more reports on police stops in response to a study that found the department had disproportionately searched black residents between 2007 and 2010.

'A Key Moment'

In terms of police-related killings, national groups are also compiling data:

-- The website Fatal Encounters is tracking police-involved deaths since 2000. For Massachusetts, the site says there were close to 100 fatal encounters with police during that time.

-- Last month, the Guardian published a database of people killed by police in the U.S., called "The Counted." That site ranks Massachusetts 25th among the states in the number of police killings.

-- An open-source reporting project called "Killed by Police" lists seven police-involved deaths in Massachusetts since January.

-- And a Washington Post database also says that seven people were shot and killed by police so far this year in Massachusetts; four of them white.

While those numbers may seem relatively low compared with other states, Boston civil rights attorney Howard Friedman says the problems in the state's criminal justice system are insidious, and true reform, he says, would require changes from prosecutors and judges as well.

"They know which officers are bringing in defendants day after day, charged with assault and battery on a police officer, resisting arrest, disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct," Friedman said. "Those are referred to as cover charges -- everyone in the criminal justice system knows that. If an officer is bringing those charges regularly, someone should be looking into whether the charges are legitimate."

Other proposed reforms before lawmakers include new procedures for investigating police-involving shootings and for better accounting of assets seized under state drug laws. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts is working on several of these. The ACLU's Matt Segal says improved data collecting will lead to better policing.

"You can't manage what you do not measure and here in Massachusetts we measure very little. Our public records law is broken," Segal said.

While public records is another complex issue before lawmakers, Segal says because of concerns about the system from so many fronts, he's optimistic reform will happen soon

"This is really a key moment for criminal justice reform in the commonwealth's history," he said. "We have a coming together of people around an idea that reform is necessary, that good reform is possible."

Some of that may start at Tuesday's hearing which is scheduled to review more than 130 bills.

This article was originally published on July 14, 2015.

This segment aired on July 14, 2015.


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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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