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Mass. Bishops urge criminal justice reform


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BRAINTREE -- On the eve of the upcoming 2017 Legislative Session, Massachusetts Catholic bishops sent a letter to state leaders urging them to consider filing legislation that would reform the criminal justice system, particularly in ways that would offer more leniency and more in-prison and re-entry programs for non-violent offenders.

The letter, issued through the Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), the public policy arm of the Catholic Church in the state, was signed by Boston Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, Worcester Bishop Robert J. McManus, Springfield Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanski and Fall River Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha.

"There are approximately twenty thousand people in our state's jails and prisons. Many of those people are repeat offenders who need our help!" the bishops wrote.

"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," they continued.

The letter was sent Dec. 6 to Gov. Charlie D. Baker, Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, Speaker of the House Robert A. DeLeo, and Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Besides being key policymakers in the Commonwealth, the state leaders, including Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, are also on a committee leading a review that seeks to reduce recidivism, increase public safety, and economize the criminal justice system in the state.

The review is being conducted by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that serves policymakers by providing them with impartial, evidence-based advice and strategies focused primarily on criminal justice systems.

Called the CSG Justice Center-Massachusetts Criminal Justice Review, the review is expected to be fully released in early 2017, and its findings are meant to inform lawmakers in developing policy options.

In their letter the bishops said they hope that, at a minimum, the review and subsequent legislation will both recognize and address several "critical areas" in the current judicial system.

Their suggestions include repealing "excessively long" mandatory minimum jail sentences for non-violent drug convictions, and offering treatment programs rather than imprisonment for offenders suffering from substance addiction.

Additionally, they are urging policymakers to increase funding for in-prison and re-entry programs focused on providing mental health and drug abuse services, as well as education and job training.

The bishops also suggest altering the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system to reduce the amount of time potential employers have access to an individual's criminal records, and propose simplifying parole eligibility and "the cumbersome system currently in place for granting parole."

"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," the bishops wrote.

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