State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz spoke to the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council on Tuesday night about the two issues she is most focused on -- early childhood education and a comprehensive criminal justice reform.
Chang-Diaz said "neighborhood issues are always cooking in my office" but added that charter schools have taken up the majority of her time the last several months, which is an issue across the state.
"I'm a big proponent of early childhood education," said Chang-Diaz senator who is chair of the Joint Committee on Education. "My conclusion -- both from the district and state-wide, is that high-quality early childhood education is imperative for underserved children."
She said she's filed legislation that would fund programs for "universal state-wide access for very young children to take part in the school system."
Chang-Diaz said she was looking at a grant program not only for professional staff development of educators, as well as capital funding of facilities.
"I cannot overstate (the importance of) professional development. We do not have our workforce up to scale today. We need professionals who are paid well in the early education field or you cant get good results," she said.
Her legislation specifies a "mixed-delivery system" in district classrooms, which also provide private and nonprofit participation in the education system.
"My emphasis is on a quality model for cities and towns. This is not a competitive grant. Cities and towns need to demonstrate a level of readiness to meet the criteria to enroll 3- and 4-year-olds," said Chang-Diaz.
With a smile Chang-Diaz, who lives in JP, said that "local democracy plays a part in participating, but the structure of the bill allows for flexibility for a city or town. It's not an all or nothing bill."
The senator's desire to improve the criminal justice system is also connected with the education system.
"Seventy percent of those in our jails dropped out of high school. Think about how improvements to our schools would make to change that," she said.
She added she's constantly reminded how backward things are done, and that we spend more money on corrections than schools.
She wants to put more resources into prevention, but also to change the sentencing laws, including raising the dollar amount for shoplifting to $1,500 and make it a misdemeanor. She said shoplifting is now a felony to steal $250 worth of merchandise, which was set when $250 was a lot of money. She said changing the fine would reduce the prison population as would making it a misdemeanor and not a felony for petty larceny.
"So many things are attached to felony convictions," she said. "Housing, job applications, education. Just by changing the sentencing laws we can stop wearhousing people."
Chang Diaz said it was "a great victory when legislation was passed allowing ex-offenders to apply for drivers licenses," which state Rep. Liz Malia, D-Jamaica Plain, led the way on. The new law allows for more opportunities to find jobs and education and get them back into society faster.
She admitted that changing sentencing laws will not necessarily change behaviors but that the laws are outdated.
"There really needs to be more emphasis on treatment," said Chang-Diaz. "Many people steal to feed a habit. Locking them up is not going to help them. We also can't just be locking people up who have not been charged just because they can't afford bail."
Chang-Diaz also thinks that mandatory sentencing needs to be revised, adding that jobs and prevention programs will help both those at risk, as well as ex-offenders.