By Shira Schoenberg
BOSTON — On the same day as the Massachusetts Senate debated a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants laid out his own suggestions for reform.
Gants used his annual State of the Judiciary address Thursday to stress the importance of taking steps to reduce the rate at which people return to prison.
“If we continue to allow many defendants to leave our prisons and houses of correction with untreated drug and mental health problems, with no job training or job experience, and then continue to place obstacles in their way when they try to find lawful employment, we can be sure that they will find work; it might just not be the work we want them to find,” Gants said.
He quoted a formerly incarcerated inmate who said, “The streets are always hiring.”
Among Gants’ suggestions, many of which were included in an independent review of the Massachusetts justice system by the Council of State Governments:
- Provide drug treatment, mental health treatment and cognitive behavioral therapy to prison inmates.
- Give defendants reasonable incentives to seek treatment, such as earned time off their sentences and parole.
- Reduce the degree to which a criminal conviction makes it harder to keep a driver’s license, get a job, obtain education or find housing.
- Diminish the financial burden of fees and fines.
- Enroll 18- to 24-year-olds in post-release programs.
“If we take these steps, then we can finally make a dent in that persistent recidivism rate and reduce the overall crime rate,” Gants said.
Gants did not weigh in on many of the controversial provisions of the state Senate’s bill, such as revising statutory rape statutes or changing the age at which a juvenile can be tried as an adult.
But as he has in the past, Gants reiterated his support for eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, such as selling drugs near a school zone. The state Senate is considering eliminating several mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.
Gants called attention to two other problems currently plaguing the criminal justice system. One, which is particularly pronounced in Western Massachusetts, is the inability to find attorneys to represent parents and children in cases when the Department of Children and Families has removed a child from parental custody.
State law grants the parents a hearing within 72 hours of a child’s removal to determine whether the parents or the state will have custody until the matter is resolved. But in Hampden County, since March, approximately half of these hearings have been delayed because it was not possible to find an attorney to represent indigent parents and children.
“The problem so far has eluded resolution and may even be getting worse,” Gants said, calling it “a constitutional emergency.”
Gants said there needs to be more training for attorneys to take these cases. He said he will ask the Legislature to raise the rate for public defenders who take these cases from $55 to $80 an hour.
Another serious problem is the “overwhelming” workload for judges in Probate and Family Court, which Gants said is “simply not sustainable.” Gants said he has asked retired Justice Margot Botsford to consult on the issue and figure out how to make the Probate and Family Court less burdensome for judges and more effective for litigants.
Other judicial priorities that Gants stressed include expanding the use of specialty courts, like drug courts; saying up to date in the use of information technology like electronic filing; and making better use of videoconferencing.
Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey, in her own address, said she supports changes to the bail system, which is another issue included in the Senate criminal justice bill. Carey said the trial court wants to see the state move toward a system that decreases reliance on cash bail and standardizes the factors judges consider when deciding to release defendants on bail.
Carey said the court also supports part of a separate bill, which was based on the Council of State Governments review, that focuses on expanding community corrections centers, which supervise offenders on probation with both sanctions and services.
Carey said the trial court plans to focus on providing services to high-risk, high-need young adults ages 18 to 24 through a pilot probation program.
She acknowledged the debate, but did not take a stance on what age someone should be considered a juvenile. “A justice system that appropriately responds to criminal behavior and helps young adults rebuild their lives has potential to reduce further criminal activity and consequently the number of future victims,” Carey said.