Community organizers aim to fix a flawed justice system, one bail check at a time

  • Creatas

Published: 12/13/2017 11:08:47 PM

NORTHAMPTON — As legislators work on a bill they say completely rewrites the bail statute, some locals are taking the matter into their own hands.

On Wednesday, a group of community organizers gathered at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, on Main Street, to expand efforts to gather funds to pay people’s bail and get people involved in strategies of “de-carceration.”

“It’s about building relationships to counter state action and to create a public shift on how we have to relate to each other in order to address these problems,” said Fey Shreefter, a Northampton resident.

The group is working on fundraising for the Massachusetts Bail Fund as well as getting people involved in posting bail and conducting so-called court watches, where observers takes notes on how judges are setting bail.

Williamsburg resident Cesi Marseglia recently had the experience of posting bail for a woman who was held at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center, in Chicopee, through the Worcester chapter of the Bail Fund. Marseglia said the woman was “floored that somebody would do that.” Waiting for Wednesday’s meeting to start, Marseglia said the goal was for people to get involved and inspired.

“I want to work toward ending the ‘justice’ we see now that is really an injustice system,” Marseglia said. “It harbors so much racism and sexism and classism and is the legal backing for all of those things and creates this intensely segregated society, where people like me who are in really privileged positions don’t see how much suffering other people are doing while having to live this half-life embroiled in courts and in prisons and in jails and on probation and all these things that are daily occurrences for a lot of people who are stuck in the system one way or another,” Marseglia said. “I don’t want that for anyone, and this is a little way of relieving that.”

At the Statehouse, Massachusetts House and Senate lawmakers are expected to begin work to create a single compromise version of a bill on criminal justice reform. Legislative leaders hope to release a final version of the bill by early next year, which would then be sent to Gov. Charlie Baker for his consideration. While that work is underway, Shreefter said it would be a problem to wait for something to change in terms of policy and legislation.

A part of that potential new legislation would create a “clean road map” that tells judges and those setting bail the series of considerations need to take into account and the boundaries in their abilities to use bail to hold people, Sen. William Brownsberger said. Brownsberger serves as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“The bail statute on the books today is a complete mess and does not give judges or other attorneys much guidance at all as to how to operate,” Brownsberger said.

In Massachusetts, cash bail may only be set to assure a person’s return to court and statutorily is not allowed to be used to hold someone just because they are dangerous. There are separate guidelines that outline when a person may be held due to their perceived dangerousness. The senate’s criminal justice reform bill allowed for the use of dangerousness in more cases as well as allows for longer detention of people on a dangerousness finding.

“The expansion of dangerousness hearings will result in more people being detained through that particular mechanism, but we do not believe that it will result in a net increase in incarceration for dangerousness, rather it will reduce abuse of bail,” Brownsberger wrote on his website. “If judges feel that they have to hold people to protect the public, but we don’t give them a workable mechanism to do it, they will just continue to set exorbitant bail. This will undermine the credibility of the other changes designed to assure the release of relatively harmless people who cannot afford bail.”

Some advocates, though, oppose the changes — calling the revamping of the state’s bail regulations an expansion rather than a contraction and saying that doing it under the guise of reform is the “enemy of real change,” said Atara Rich-Shea, director of operations for the Massachusetts Bail Fund.

“Anytime we have an expansion is terrible,” Rich-Shea said.

The proposed legislation also creates a new pretrial initiative under the office of probation, which would be tasked with multiple duties including creating programs to minimize pretrial detention, provide notification to supervised defendants of court appearance obligation and assist in finding jobs and necessary treatment or services.

The goal of the initiative, Brownsberger explained, is to support people during their time in the pretrial phase of their case so that they have a better shot of getting back to court.

“This bail reform is going to very much advance the protection of low-income defendants in court, if we can get it done,” Brownsberger said.

One point both Brownsberger and Rich-Shea agree on is that time in jail is harmful.

“One day in jail is harmful. If you have responsibilities in life, being locked up for 24 to 48 hours is enough to drastically disrupt your life,” Brownsberger said.

Rich-Shea said that some studies show that even as little as three hours in jail can cause post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

“If you’re in a jail cell and someone offers you a deal, it kind of doesn’t matter what it would be, because jail is traumatizing,” Rich-Shea said. Reducing that jail time is what the Massachusetts Bail Fund, and organizers in Northampton, seek to do. Operating in seven counties in the eastern portion of the state, volunteers with the organization go to jails and post up to $500 in bail. Locally, there is not yet a bail fund working toward that effort.

This report contains information from the Associated Press.Emily Cutts can be reached at story was updated on Dec. 14, 2017 to correct the spelling of Atara Rich-Shea’s name.


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