Last week, with mixed emotions, I voted with a majority of my colleagues to accept the Conference Committee report on sentencing and probation reform. In some very meaningful ways, the legislation greatly improves the current law regarding sentencing. It will now be more difficult for a repeat violent offender to get out of jail and bring danger, even death, to our neighborhoods. On the reform end, individuals in prison for non-violent crimes will find it easier to have access to the education and training programs that will facilitate their re-entry into society at the end of their sentences. Other sections of the bill enhance our collection of DNA evidence and advance the safeguards for good-faith “good Samaritan” actions. These are all very strong and compelling reasons to have voted “yes.”
But the bill did not address the many flaws in mandatory minimum sentencing. For sixteen of the eighteen years I have served in the House, we have had bills to eliminate or at least seriously limit our reliance on minimum mandatory sentences. I believe that relying on one-size-fits-all sentencing laws and taking judgment out of the hands of judges is a serious mistake, and erodes the administration of justice in the Commonwealth. While we have been promised a debate on this issue next term, I’ve heard that promise for sixteen years now and remain deeply disappointed that the legislation we approved today yet again fails to deliver on that promise.
The bill is also silent on the largely-failed rehabilitation system in our prisons. Locking up repeat violent offenders is one thing. Releasing prisoners at the end of their sentences without the tools to survive and succeed in society is to invite them to become repeat offenders and cycle in and out of our prisons. That makes no sense.
Propelled by headline-grabbing stories about released violent offenders, the bill also seriously misses the mark in its failure to focus on the causes of most criminal behavior. While the press draws our attention to “professional” and violent crimes, the truth is that our prisons are overcrowded with people with mental health and substance abuse issues. The debate about criminal justice has largely ignored this simple but compelling fact. Were we to attack these root causes of crime and treat for them, we could attack criminal behavior at the source. The bill we just passed fails completely in this regard.
Given my major criticisms of the bill, you might legitimately ask why I voted for it. Again, measured against current law, this bill marks a marginal improvement. A “no” vote, by this standard, is a vote for the status quo. I take some comfort from the public commitments made by my colleagues who also expressed serious reservations about the bill, even as they, like me, were voting “yes.” If, as they promised, we revisit issues of minimum mandatory sentences, mental illness, substance abuse, and rehabilitation in the next term, I will look back on this vote as the “down payment” on the major reform that we need. In the name of justice and a smart criminal justice system, I am committed to reform effort and to addressing the critical issues that, sadly, we failed to address this term.