By Dave Jolivet
BOSTON, Mass. — Shortly before Catholics worldwide celebrated the birth of Christ Who came “to bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind”(Lk 4:18-19), the four Roman Catholic bishops of Massachusetts took a proactive approach seeking criminal justice reform in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, OFM Cap., of the Boston Archdiocese; Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., of the Fall River Diocese; Bishop Robert J. McManus of the Diocese of Worcester; and Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of the Springfield Diocese, collaborated on a letter, issued through the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts, addressed to Governor Charles D. Baker Jr.; Speaker of the House Robert A. DeLeo; Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg; and Supreme Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, mapping out a plan to “join together as one and file comprehensive legislation that reforms our criminal justice system for criminal offenders.”
In anticipation of an upcoming report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center providing a blueprint for legislative reform, the bishops, referencing the 20,000 men and women in state jails and prisons, went on to say, “While acknowledging this type of legislation will be multi-faceted, covering many layers of the judicial system, we certainly hope and expect that the report and subsequent legislation, at a minimum, will recognize and address critical areas that offenders face every day under the current judicial system.” The bishops added, “Many of those [prisoners] are repeat offenders who need our help.”
The critical areas cited by the bishops’ letter were:
“(1) Repeal the excessively long mandatory minimum jail sentences for non-violent drug convictions by empowering judges to hand down a sentence for offenders on a case-by-case basis and determined by the specific facts and circumstances of each case.
“(2) Promote, create and fund diversion to ‘treatment programs’ rather than ‘imprisonment’ for offenders suffering from substance abuse. This is particularly critical as we face the deadly and growing opioid abuse crises in Massachusetts.
“(3) Increase funding for both in-prison programs for drug abuse and mental health services, education and job training as well as re-entry programs for job training, placement, drug treatment, mental health services and housing.
“(4) Reform the Criminal Offender Record Information system by reducing the period of time potential employers have access to an individual’s criminal records. The current system is designed to provide ‘roadblocks’ to successful rehabilitation, employment opportunities and assimilation back into society by individuals attempting to turn their lives around.
“(5) Streamline and simplify parole eligibility and the cumbersome system currently in place for granting parole. For example, a preliminary report issued earlier this year suggests that on average 206 days accrue between the grant of an inmate parole and his/her release.”
A longtime proponent of criminal justice reform in the Commonwealth is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, specifically its National Voice of the Poor Committee. “Securing this type of support has been a long-standing goal of the Vincentian Re-entry Organizing Project in Massachusetts,” Tom Dwyer, committee chairman and leader of the Northeast Region Voice of the Poor, told The Anchor. Dwyer, a member of the St. Mary’s Parish SVdP conference in Mansfield added, “The SVdP Central Council presidents and executive directors in Fall River, Worcester and Boston each wrote their respective bishops asking that such a public stand be taken.”
Dwyer further explained, “Vincentians in Massachusetts are continuing to work on re-entry goals, such as our legislative advocacy effort and on building capacity to help returning citizens (i.e., ex-offenders) return to civil society. Noteworthy in that respect is an ongoing effort in the Attleboro SVdP District to work with the Bristol House of Corrections on an re-entry program. Several individuals in the Attleboro District are working on this.”
Steve Meaney of the Fall River Council of the SVdP Society told The Anchor, “Noting the recidivism rates of those re-entering society, it is clear that the current system is not working and needs help. The people working in the Bristol County Corrections Department that we have met with are aware of the problem, do as much as they can on their end prior to release, and are frustrated as anybody by what all too often happens and that the ex-offender lands in trouble again.”
Also with an eye on the awaited Justice Center report is the Massachusetts United Interfaith Action group, of which Holy Cross Father Marc Fallon, in residence at St. Mary’s Parish in Taunton, is a member. UIA is a congregation-based organization including churches from New Bedford and Fall River.
The bishops concluded their correspondence to the Commonwealth’s governor, speaker of the house, senate president, and chief justice, saying, “Adopting comprehensive thoughtful reforms will reduce recidivism and incarcerations rates for offenders (particularly non-violent offenders) and provide the path for many of them to be productive members of our society.
“We must come together in 2017 as legislators, justices, Church leaders and many more groups and individuals across our great Commonwealth to put in place a new system which will provide these individuals the support they need and a new hope for the future.”
Dwyer added, “In short, our criminal justice system is more focused on punishment and isolation than on rehabilitation and re-integration. That is counter to Catholic social teaching and counter-productive in terms of sound public policy.
“Ex-offenders return to society ill-equipped to begin productive new lives; in fact, sometimes they return only better prepared for a life of continuing crime. That directly feeds a high recidivism rate, a continuation of the poverty cycle, family disunity, and unsafe communities and neighborhoods.
“Consider that about 90 percent of incarcerated individuals return to society, yet in Massachusetts we spend only about two percent of the criminal justice budget on rehabilitative type programs. Then we are surprised when the recidivism rate is in the 60-70 percent range.”
The full MCC-issued bishops’ letter can be found at macatholic.org, and click on “Alerts.”
For more information on the Vincentian Re-entry Program, visit vincentianrestoration.nationbuilder.com.