Columnist Lindsay Sabadosa: Fixing the ‘brokenness’ of the criminal justice system

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston

Published: 6/20/2019 6:00:25 PM
Modified: 6/20/2019 6:00:15 PM

Every Friday afternoon at 5, I make sure to check my email. That’s when House staff lets us know if we’ll have formal session (i.e. we’ll be voting on something) the following Wednesday.

The email rarely tells us what we’ll really be voting on — often it lists a sick bank or a smaller bill that is unlikely to be on our Wednesday agenda — and that’s when the calls start between members asking, “What are we taking up? Have you heard anything?”

Sometimes, there will have been an article in State House News Service or the speaker will have mentioned something the week before at caucus. Then the questions will be different. “Have you seen the bill? What does it say exactly?”

There are two guarantees at Wednesday formal session though: we will be in the building for the afternoon and we will have the chance to spend time with colleagues. Since there is an incredible amount of downtime, it is also a good opportunity to head out of chambers to meet the people who wait outside the members’ area because they know they have the best chance of flagging down legislators to talk to them.

That’s what happened Wednesday when I met Darrell Jones. Darrell was released from prison after the Massachusetts Innocence Program proved that Brockton police deliberately altered a critical piece of evidence and that a detective lied at his first trial. He spent 32 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

It is hard to look at Darrell without imagining what it must be like to spend your first week outside of prison in three decades and how much the world has changed since he was last free. Darrell seems to have found his stride quickly though, because he was in the State House to talk to legislators about just how broken our criminal justice system is and what we can do to fix it.

His stories were not surprising. The brokenness of which he speaks was on full display when I visited the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk to meet with the Lifers Group in March. With other legislators from across the state, we sat down with about a hundred men who will likely die in prison.

In a state that is 80 percent white, well over half were men of color. When I asked how many of them had been in prison since the age of 21 or before, over half the hands went up. When I asked how many had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for joint venture, slightly fewer than half of those same hands went up. Joint venture is a legal concept that requires a jury to infer that the joint venturer had the same intent as the principal perpetrator.

This means that there are people who have never murdered anyone in prison for life without the possibility of parole. Were they complicit? Does that mean that they should serve life in prison without the possibility of parole? And, in fact, should anyone be sentenced to prison without the possibility of parole?

Those are the questions I am hopeful we will take up this session with some of the legislation before us. Massachusetts is second only to Louisiana for the number of people serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole (11.6 percent versus 13.4 percent) despite our “progressive” reputation. For comparison, New York has four times our inmate population, but only 0.5 percent are serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole.

Additionally, we have the oldest inmate population in the country, and we are currently under federal investigation for issues related to solitary confinement and the treatment of ill and elderly inmates in the state prison system. For those looking at our budget as a roadmap of our values, it feels like a good time to question why the Department of Corrections has the fourth largest budget in the state too.

State House News reported last week that the House is likely to take up the question of dangerousness soon. This is legislation filed by the governor in response to Brangan v. Commonwealth in 2017, which determined that bail must be set in an amount commensurate to a defendant’s economic means. In other words, people cannot be held simply because they are too poor to afford bail, as can happen with one-size-fits-all bail.

Codified last session in the Criminal Justice Reform Act without any mechanism to track its implementation (but don’t worry, I filed a bill to do just that), the proposed dangerousness bill may be the first bill that the House takes up this session that focuses on criminal justice, and I am worried that it is a step to undo some of the good legislative work of last session.

As with all things, finding the right balance in criminal justice reform is a delicate issue and fundamentally goes back to the question of what does justice mean to us as a society. I just wonder if perhaps the 160 members of the House should have more than a few hours on a Wednesday morning to weigh that important question.

Lindsay Sabadosa is a Northampton resident and the state representative for the 1st Hampshire District. She can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.


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