PITTSFIELD, Mass. — State Sen. Adam Hinds is looking to be at the forefront of pushing for criminal justice reform.
The freshman senator from Pittsfield hadn't been in office in the fall when dozens of bills began relating to reform piled into the Legislator nor was he appointed to the judiciary committee. But, he's trying to elbow his way in to advocate for major overhauls of the system.
"It has now been made abundantly clear from both sides of the Legislature that the fall is when we will take on criminal justice reform," Hinds told the local branch of the NAACP on Wednesday when he sought input so he was in "lockstep" with the organization.
The former head of the Pittsfield Community Connection, which was formed to help at-risk youth avoid criminal behavior, said he recently went on a retreat with others in the Senate focusing on the issue. For hours they heard testimony from former prisoners, district attorneys, police, sheriffs, and more. Hinds said there are an array of issues that need to be addressed when it comes to courts, jails, and post release.
"To get consensus on moving something forward in Massachusetts, the common ground identified early was recidivism," Hinds said, but he added that "the downside is you will see an isolated focus on recidivism, mental health, and substance abuse at the detriment of other issues."
Hinds said while it is true that Massachusetts is one of the lowest in the country in percent of incarcerations, that number is still 236 percent more than in the 1980s and climbing fast. When it comes to recidivism, Hinds said three-quarters of people going to jail have been there before — and he acknowledged the disproportionate amount of minorities being sent to prison.
Previous efforts, which focused on recidivism hadn't gone far enough, he said. There are plenty of issues that need to be addressed. Particularly, he's looking to abolish minimum sentencing.
"There is something fundamentally wrong with the system right now," Hinds said.
The Pittsfield Democrat said there have been shootings and other violent crimes in Pittsfield with witnesses. But those witnesses refuse to speak because there is an underlying distrust of the criminal justice system that needs to change. A major way to do that is to get rid of mandatory sentences.
"If we are going to change something big, that's going to be it," Hinds said.
He said others will advocate for that as a tool to use to get information, such as a low-level drug buyer being leveraged to reveal who his or her dealer is to avoid jail time. But, Hinds said there are other ways to get that information.
He's also calling to change sanctions against convicts levied through the Registry of Motor Vehicles making it more difficult for them to access work opportunities, increase restorative justice and diversion programs, and to reform bail because many can't afford to pay it.
When it comes to the pretrial issues, NAACP chapter Chairman Dennis Powell said woman prisoners are no longer kept in the Berkshires but instead shipped to Chicopee. If they can't afford bail, they are left there with limited access to their families, and their attorneys who are preparing for their cases.
"We have a situation right in our community where all female prisons are shipped so far away, they aren't housed locally, and this puts them at such a disadvantage," Powell said. "You've got people doing time and they haven't even been convicted of a crime."
Powell said in other communities, transportation for families and attorneys were reimbursed.
When it comes to inside the walls of a prison, Hinds wants to take a look at the use of solitary confinement and possibly raising the age of what is considered a juvenile offense.
"There is a pretty broad set of issues being considered," Hinds said.
The senator expressed disappointment that more data isn't readily available. He wants to look at what cases are — and aren't — chosen to be pursued by prosecutors, how the cases are assigned and what cases go to which attorneys. He feels that information can help reveal inherent bias in the system.
"There is a lot that data can reveal and I think that should be part of this," Hinds said.
What Hinds is afraid of is that the discussion about criminal justice reform is going to center on the notion of security and not the entire spectrum of how the system operates and the ultimate outcomes.
"We need to make sure we don't fall too easily into 'this is about security and that's it.' There is a level of education that needs to take place and I think all of us need to be involved in that," Hinds said.
NAACP member Leah Reed said another barrier leading to recidivism is how criminal records impact employment. She said many people are being released from jail and trying to do better for themselves, but their record haunts them and keeps them from getting work.
"If we have people who've done their time and are trying to re-enter society, that creates an issue," she said.
Reed suggested having that be a question employers can ask only after the entire process. It shouldn't become a sticking point during the application and interview.
Jon Schnauber, who heads the Pittsfield Community Connection now, said social re-entry efforts won't work if there aren't job opportunities. He said he's worked with individuals who come out of jail reformed but get right back into the cycle of generational poverty.
"If there aren't jobs, they will return to criminal activity." he said.
NAACP member Tommie Hutto-Blake said there are an array of factors that go into addressing recidivism, from voting rights to economics.
"It just kills me that the system will end up causing individuals to go into debt," she said.
The issue is still a few months away from being a focus on Beacon Hill. And as Hinds tries to work his way into the conversation, he has the local NAACP's support.
"Our main concern this year is criminal justice reform. Most of the local chapters have really taken this up, especially throughout Massachusetts," Powell said, adding that the school-to-prison pipeline has to end.
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