Group named to work with researchers on criminal justice reforms

Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, State Rep. Randy Hunt named to group

Editor's note: State Representative Randy Hunt and Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe were both named to the group. Regarding the creation of the group, Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe said, "I am happy to participate in this review of the Commonwealth's criminal justice system. The system does many things well but there is always room for improvement."

A 25-member bipartisan working group that will partner with outside researchers analyzing the state's criminal justice system was announced Wednesday, putting in motion a process that could culminate in reform legislation to be introduced in January 2017.

The task force, led by governor's chief legal counsel Lon Povich, Sen. William Brownsberger, Rep. John Fernandes and Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey, will work with the Council of State Government's Justice Center to explore opportunities for criminal justice policy reform. Fernandes and Brownsberger chair the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.

After months of analysis and investigation, justice center researchers plan to bring policy recommendations to the working group "sometime in early summer" of 2016 with a goal of then working with lawmakers to have legislation introduced in January 2017, said Katie Mosehauer, who is leading the justice center's Massachusetts team.

"We definitely realize that January 2017 is a long time from now, so we're hoping that our efforts will be complimentary to a lot of what's going on now, and there will be momentum building until January 2017," Mosehauer told the News Service.

The Legislature and former Gov. Deval Patrick in 2012 passed a law eliminating parole eligibility for certain repeat violent offenders and making about 600 non-violent drug offenders immediately eligible for parole. Legislative leaders at the time told Patrick they planned in the 2013-2014 session to revisit other criminal justice reforms but that session ended without adoption of major changes.

Government leaders have said this year that some reforms, including changes to sentencing laws, should wait until they can be informed by the independent analysis. They face growing pressure to act from interest groups and others want more immediate changes.

Several bills before the Judiciary Committee, proposals that have drawn hundreds of supporters and opponents to testify at hours-long hearings, look to reform aspects of the criminal justice system, largely with the goal of reducing the prison population and ensuring that people with substance abuse problems receive treatment.

Bills have also been proposed that would strengthen the restrictions on putting prisoners in solitary confinement, allow the expungement of juvenile criminal records, increase access to re-entry services and community corrections programs, and eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.

In September, the Senate took what some members have described as a first step toward criminal justice reform, unanimously passing a bill repealing automatic driver's license suspensions for persons convicted of drug crimes.

"It's so exciting to see that Massachusetts has a lot of interest in criminal justice issues, and a lot of momentum, so we're definitely watching for these other legislative efforts," Mosehauer said.

The Council on State Government's Justice Center has provided technical assistance on reinvestment initiatives in 21 states, including Rhode Island, which Mosehauer said is about six months ahead of Massachusetts. State leaders reached out to the council in August, requesting technical assistance from its Justice Reinvestment Initiative to take a data-driven approach to further reduce recidivism rates, prison populations and taxpayer costs in the state.

Gov. Charlie Baker, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, Sen. President Stanley Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants will serve on a steering committee that will oversee development of policy options through the review process.

"This group of distinguished individuals with backgrounds in criminal justice and law enforcement will serve the Commonwealth well in our endeavor with the Council of State Governments to further reform and improve the judicial process, and reduce recidivism and incarceration rates," Baker said in a statement announcing the working group membership. "Massachusetts' strengths in these areas and wealth of ideas and experienced individuals, will ensure we continue to lead on criminal justice reform, public safety and reentry programming, while maintaining one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation."

The members of the working group include: Committee for Public Counsel Services chief counsel Anthony Benedetti, Secretary of Public Safety and Security Daniel Bennett, Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins, Sen. Cynthia Creem, District Court Chief Justice Paul Dawley, Probation Commissioner Ed Dolan, Superior Court Chief Justice Judith Fabricant, Natick Police Chief James Hicks, Rep. Randy Hunt, Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, Rep. Christopher Markey, East Boston Municipal Court First Justice John McDonald, Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph McDonald, Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Classification, Programs and Reentry Carol Mici, Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe, Deputy Attorney General Colin Owyang, Associate Commissioner of Forensic Mental Health Services Jennifer Queally, Fall River Police Chief Daniel Racine, Parole Board Chairman Paul Treseler and Prisoners' Legal Services Executive Director Leslie Walker.

The justice reinvestment effort in Massachusetts will likely be somewhat unique compared to other states, Mosehauer said, incorporating new areas of study or going more in-depth in previously explored issues.

"Traditionally, Justice Reinvestment focuses more on felony offenses, but in Massachusetts, we'll be able to do a deep dive into both misdemeanor and felony offenses," she said.

The researchers also hope to add new layers of analysis to their efforts, including working with sheriffs and district attorneys to access county level data. So far, they have been in contact with district attorneys about accessing information on the use of pretrial diversion programs, which Mosehauer said is "really something we haven't been able to get our hands on in other states."

The first meeting of the working group will kick off a six to nine month research process, with interim reports presented to the state every couple of months, Mosehauer said. That research will culminate in policy recommendations and a framework that will be introduced to the working group next year, then brought before lawmakers.


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