This legislative session, the Massachusetts Legislature is tackling criminal justice reform. Presently, our penal system is riddled with policies that ruin lives for non-violent offenses, do nothing to prevent future imprisonment, and make it nearly impossible for people to get and stay on a path to future success and employment.
Back in 2010, many of you saw how complicated unpacking the issues that need reform can be, and it is no simpler as the legislature tries again to fix unjust laws. Taking on criminal justice reform requires us to have an honest conversation about race, economic opportunity, and access to behavioral healthcare. I'm considering all of these factors and more as I work with my colleagues to create a humane justice system. Our criminal justice system should recognize and treat the conditions that bring us to interact with it, including the behavioral health diagnoses that affect so many.
According to the Council of State Government’s Justice Center final report, more than half of people on probation and two-thirds of people on parole in the Commonwealth have substance use or mental health treatment needs or both, i.e., co-occurring behavioral health disorders. That’s why when the legislature takes up a criminal justice reform package this fall, we MUST consider the approaches and resources needed to address the behavioral health needs of those at-risk of being incarcerated, those currently serving time within the corrections system, and those who are reentering our communities.
Last year the Massachusetts Legislature created the Special Legislative Commission on Behavioral Health Promotion and Upstream Prevention or the "Promote and Prevent" Commission. The commission's mandate is to investigate fact-based practices, programs, and systems, and to make recommendations to the legislature on policies that give rise to a more robust behavioral health system. In July, the commission held its first public hearing. I was invited to testify, so I spoke about four of my bills relative to kids, courts, cops, and criminal offender record information (CORI).
1. Kids - Recovery high schools facilitate a safe space for students to obtain a diploma while they recover from substance use disorder. Bill H2049, An Act Providing Transportation to Recovery High Schools (sponsored by Malia, Lewis and Chang-Diaz) addresses the poor access to recovery high schools. The bill seeks to allow the Commonwealth to reimburse municipalities for the cost of transportation to one of Commonwealth’s five recovery high schools. This bill is important because regardless of location it gives our youth in recovery (or trying to get there) the option of getting to school just like their peers, so they can achieve their academic goals in a setting designed to support sobriety.
2. Courts - Rather than incarcerating individuals charged with a first or second drug offense, we can help folks by diverting them to the clinical care they need. Bill H2181, An Act Relative to Substance Use Disorder Diversion and Treatment (sponsored by Malia and Mayor Walsh) establishes a standardized court diversion process for those struggling with a substance use disorder. The bill also mandates thirty days of private health insurance coverage for a broad spectrum of inpatient treatment, expands Good Samaritan protections to encourage emergency care, and expands the Drug Stewardship program to provide for a prescription collection kiosk at every chain pharmacy location.
3. Cops - Interactions between police and people with behavioral health disorders occur daily and can easily go wrong. Routinely training police in de-escalation will help to prevent such outcomes. Bill H2401, An Act to Establish a Center of Excellence in Community Policing and Behavioral Health (sponsored by Malia, Rushing and Donnelly) creates a statewide infrastructure to bring critical mental health and substance use training programs to individual police departments. While some departments currently train their officers in de-escalation, not all departments have the bandwidth to do so. It’s vital to everyone’s public safety to establish a statewide system to help ensure our law enforcement departments, regardless of size and location, have access to crisis intervention training.
4. CORI – Some criminal records pointlessly last a lifetime. Bill H3084, An Act Promoting Community Prosperity by Further Reforming Criminal Offender Record Information, also known as the Community Prosperity Act, (sponsored by Malia) corrects oversights from 2010 reform in six ways that will increase the likelihood of post-incarceration employment and decrease recidivism. The bill reduces waiting periods for sealing records and impediments to employment and housing after cases are sealed, permits sealing of resisting arrest convictions (not sealable under existing law even though the conviction assault and battery on a police officer is sealable), prevents certain youthful offenses from reaching adult CORIs, and reduces the likelihood of child support penalties. Implementation of this bill would help to ensure people in the community have a better chance at employment and success.
Our current policies may be race-neutral as written, but the effect is certainly not. And they’re insanely expensive to boot. In Suffolk County, the average yearly cost to incarcerate an individual is at least $50,000, without calculating collateral costs. Shifting from lifetime punishment to a rehabilitative system is cheaper for the taxpayer and socially responsible.
As a legislature, we have a duty to provide pathways to prosperity for every resident of the Commonwealth regardless of race, gender, mental health and economic status. In the coming months, I will be working with my colleagues to ensure we pass meaningful reforms that help end the entry points into our criminal justice system, and the laws and policies that keep people there. I welcome you to be part of the conversation. Please visit my website at www.replizmalia.com. I will be posting progress updates there. I look forward to working with you in passing these reforms to build an economically just Commonwealth.
State Rep. Liz Malia, D-Jamaica Plain, was first elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1998. She is the House Chair of the Joint Committee on Mental Health and Substance Abuse.