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Gov. Baker Unveils Plan To Reduce Prison 'Revolving Door'

Feb 26, 2017 08:05AM ● By State House News

Protesters with the I Have A Future/Youth Jobs Coalition wait for Gov. Charlie Baker after an event where he swore in a new Black Advisory Coalition. The group is among those calling for broader criminal justice reforms than those proposed in the Council of State Governments report. [Photo: Katie Lannan/SHNS]

Atty. Paul King

 After bottling up discussions in a roughly yearlong study, state officials this week uncorked a proposal to slow the criminal justice system's revolving door of recidivism.

The plan filed by Gov. Charlie Baker would afford convicted traffickers in marijuana and cocaine an opportunity to reduce their time of incarceration by participating in programs behind bars. That same opportunity would not be extended to traffickers in heroin and other opiates under the bill.

Aside from enhancing prisoners' ability to earn "good time" and the quality of programming, the long-awaited criminal justice reform bill does not do much else in its current form.

But even the strongest advocates of eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes called the legislation a good, if small, first step. They are excited about the prospect of the Legislature actually digging in on what they see as a neglected issue. The road to a more comprehensive overhaul of the Commonwealth's punishment policies will likely be a long and winding one.

The perspective of voters, and lawmakers, in more suburban and rural communities around the state is likely different, and perhaps less personal, than the neighbors of Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz. At last month's Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast, the Jamaica Plain Democrat described how there are city blocks in her district where not one household is unaffected by the criminal justice system. There are likely cul de sacs and country roads elsewhere in the Commonwealth where the criminal courts are a mere abstraction for all who live there.

Racial disparities in the prison population are one of the problems reformers hope to solve.

This past week also offered reminders of the brutal toll of the state's opiate epidemic.

Vigilantism was the motivation behind a grisly double murder in Peabody on Saturday, if the account that suspect Wes Doughty allegedly gave to carjacking victim Kenneth Metz is to be believed. Metz said Doughty told him he participated in the murder because the slaying victims had allegedly given his godfather heroin.

The maximum state penalty for heroin distribution is 10 years. The penalty for first degree murder is a lifetime in prison.

Last week, Regla Santana and Antonio Rivera felt the weight of a new state law bolstering the punishment for fentanyl distribution before pleading guilty to trafficking in the deadly and addictive opioid. Lawmakers in 2015 hiked the maximum penalty for trafficking in more than 10 grams of fentanyl to 20 years, and Attorney General Maura Healey said the pair represented the first conviction under the law, receiving sentences of three to four years in state prison.

And last Friday, the state announced 1,465 people had died of confirmed unintentional opioid overdoses in 2016, with another 469 to 562 suspected of dying the same way, representing an increase in opioid deaths last year compared to 2015.

In the case of criminal justice reform, tight budgets might come to the aid of those seeking further reductions in the prison population. It cost an average of about $53,000 annually to house a prison inmate as of fiscal 2014.

A continued reduction in the prison population - Baker has emphasized that the number of prisoners has fallen under his watch - could free up some budget dollars for other priorities since tax revenue growth has been sluggish for an extended period despite low unemployment.

Yet from a political perspective, the elected officials who craft state laws must worry that today's trafficker in maui waui or sour diesel could, if freed, go on to commit future crimes that shock the public conscience and call into question any steps toward leniency.

Speaking of marijuana strains, the two co-chairs of the Legislature's Committee on Marijuana Policy this week outlined their approach as they consider changes to the voter-approved law legalizing the eventual retail sale of the leafy drug.

Braintree Democrat Rep. Mark Cusack and Somerville Sen. Patricia Jehlen subscribe to the theory that voters endorsed the thrust of marijuana legalization without supporting every detail of the ballot question. Jehlen expressed skepticism about reducing the number of pot plants that residents can now grow for themselves - currently capped at six per person and 12 per household.

Pro-pot liberals might become conflicted between using marijuana excise taxes to increase state revenue - as Medicaid gobbles up budget allocations - and their goal of making regulated weed affordable, thereby cutting out the illicit market.

The Legislature has consistently shied away from seriously considering proposals to relax state controls over marijuana, and a floor debate on a big marijuana bill would be a first in recent years. So too would be a floor speech by the committee's House chair. Heading into his fourth term, Cusack has yet to deliver his maiden speech in the House chamber.

Meanwhile, the federal government could play a bigger role in enforcing its prohibition of the drug. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said he believes the public "will see greater enforcement" of federal marijuana laws.

Talk of stepped-up anti-pot enforcement was not the only way the Trump administration intruded on the Congressional recess, which coincided with school vacation week in Massachusetts.

Top state officials responded Thursday to the latest policy move out of Washington D.C. rolling back a roughly nine-month-old directive to honor students' gender identities in schools.

The move by the U.S. education and justice departments will have no direct effect on Bay State students' rights, as state laws already provide protections to transgender children and adults. The legal effect in other states is also debatable, as a Texas judge had previously barred enforcement nationwide of the Obama administration guidance.

But as a symbolic gesture, the Trump administration move went down like a glass of ipecac syrup among the officials who rallied support for transgender rights in Massachusetts.

"They seem to be hell bent on punching down, and I would like to see Donald Trump pick on somebody his own size and not a child," said Healey, who was joined by House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stan Rosenberg in lambasting the new policy.

Baker, whose public comments are usually constrained to matters within Massachusetts borders, said he was "disappointed" by the shift and disagreed with it. All four top officials sought to reassure local transgender students that Massachusetts follows a different rulebook.

On Thursday night, it was Baker taking licks from student protestors during a talk at Tufts University. The students reportedly shouted questions and chanted, asking him to make the state a sanctuary for unauthorized immigrants and accusing him of cutting education funding.

"I got bad news for you. We've never cut funds to public education," Baker responded, according to the Somerville Journal, which said people in the crowd replied to that with chants and a walkout.

Baker traveled to Washington D.C. for a National Governors Association gathering on Friday, with plans for a Friday lunch with Vice President Mike Pence and other governors, and then a Sunday evening event with Trump, First Lady Melania Trump and other governors.
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Two days after announcing his criminal justice reform legislation, the governor established the Black Advisory Commission, a group of accomplished black men and women tasked with developing a couple of proposals to "really move the needle" on extending prosperity to black communities.

Among those appointed to the commission were Robert Lewis Jr., founder of THE BASE and a prominent supporter of Baker's 2014 gubernatorial run, and Robert Johnson, the president of Becker College, member of the state Board of Higher Education and one of three finalists for the position of UMass Dartmouth chancellor.

The extension of prosperity in Massachusetts continues to be a confounding problem in a state with an unemployment rate of 2.8 percent and an extended development boom in its largest city. Tax revenues continue to rise at a tepid pace and some corners of the state face relatively dim economic prospects.

Thursday brought word from the Boston Foundation that the number of Bay State families in homeless shelters increased 93 percent between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2016 - one of the highest rates in the country - though the picture has brightened since then.

"On a given night in January 2016, 4,381 families totaling 13,174 individuals stayed in one or another of the Bay State's shelters or hotel/motels," the report said. The Baker administration has taken steps to reduce the population of homeless families living in motels. As of Thursday there were 75 families sheltered in motels, out of about 3,500 in the emergency shelter system. The Baker administration has been working to move homeless families out of motels.

This past week brought some relief at the Governor's Council where tempers were quelled after two straight weeks of rancor on the elected panel that vets and votes on Baker's judicial nominees.

"I rise to express how sorry I am for unacceptable behavior and being part of the donnybrook. It is embarrassing to me, because I am honored to serve as a Governor's Councilor," Councilor Marilyn Devaney told her colleagues.

Next week the council is set to begin interviewing Judge Elspeth "Ellie" Cypher, Baker's nominee for the Supreme Judicial Court.

The governor this week also dealt with the grim reality of a life-and-death struggle overseas.

Brian Odiorne, a 21-year-old U.S. Army private first class from Ware, reportedly died in a non-combat incident in Iraq on Monday, and at an event honoring the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima on Wednesday, the governor choked up recalling how he had spoken to Odiorne's parents, "as a dad to just speak to how sorry and sad I am."

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