- ACTION: If you are reading this before June 30, 2020, you may help our team's work by calling legislators to support a very important bill. H4652, An Act Regarding Decarceration and Covid-19, introduced by Representative Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton. Read more here.
We began as the Innocence Commission Task Team. Having been scandalized by first degree murder convictions of two African American men who appeared to us to be clearly innocent, the late Rev. Fred Anderson and I, with permission from the Historic Massachusetts Conference UCC Board of Directors, put together a task team committed to form an advisory commission to the legislature. The Innocence Commission would recommend the passage of legislation that would make it less likely that innocent people would be convicted.
Representative Ben Swan of Springfield introduced our legislation, as did, later, Representative Paul Heroux of Attleboro. It was there for three sessions of the legislature. We met monthly, we spoke at the mandatory hearings of the legislature, we conducted Super Saturday workshops, we had tables at many Conference gatherings, we spoke at criminal justice meetings, we spoke at a labor-legislative meeting, and reached out to whoever would listen. Finally, our friend Senator William Brownsberger of Belmont said, convincingly, in his opinion such a commission would be taken over by forces that didn’t want progress. And so we are now the Actual Justice Task Team.
What is our present mission?
Many are familiar with Amos 5:24, quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream”. But what is biblical justice? An example can be found in Jeremiah 22:16-17, in which the prophet berates King Jehoiakim of Judah, comparing him to his father Josiah: “He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is this not to know me? says the Lord. But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood and for practicing oppression and violence.”
We are confronted with a choice here. Is justice to support the poor in their needs, like Josiah, or to practice oppression and violence on the innocent? As Christians, we don’t have to be told the answer. Unfortunately, we on the Actual Justice Task Team believe that with 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s inmates, we are too much like Jehoiakim and too little like Josiah, albeit America's violence is not so much physical as the psychological and spiritual pain of separation from society.
So we, as Christians, support actual justice, the justice of our faith, as a corrective for the justice practiced by our country, and our commonwealth.
Legislation We Support
We have not forgotten about innocence. We are supporting the excellent legislation of Senator Cynthia Creem of Newton, S894, “An Act Improving the Accuracy of Eyewitness Identification Procedures". Seventy-five percent of the people convicted of a serious crime and then found to be innocent had a trial with faulty eyewitness identification. Senator Creem’s bill contains precise details as to how eyewitnesses are to be interviewed. However, this bill was sent to study, so will not be voted on in 2020.
Following our 2017 resolution by the Historic Massachusetts Conference Annual Meeting, we are involved with other criminal justice organizations to push Massachusetts to be the first state to rescind life without parole. Senator Joseph Boncore of Winthrop has introduced S826, “An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration”, and it is complemented with the same bill in the House of Representatives introduced by Representative Jay Livingstone of Boston, H3358. These bills would guarantee everyone a parole hearing after 25 years of incarceration.
Massachusetts is especially ripe for this effort. The Massachusetts death penalty is highly unlikely to rear its ugly head again. And a study of 2016 state prison incarceration in Massachusetts reveals that we are 5th in the nation in proportion of inmates serving life sentences (23%) and 2nd in the nation in proportion of inmates serving life without parole (13%). However, the life without parole bills were sent to study and will not be voted on in 2020.
We are always open to new emphases, often brought forth by new members of our task team. Recently there has been interest in the issue of non-criminal housing of people with drug issues. Women are housed in a community setting, but men are housed in jails. Bills by Senator Cindy Friedman of Arlington (S1145) and Representative Ruth Balser of Newton, H1700, “An Act Ensuring Access to Addiction Services,” would give our men the same treatment and opportunities for healing that our women enjoy. Those bills are still under consideration as of May 2020.
We welcome your suggestions. We also welcome you as a new member of the task team, whether you bring your own issue or want to join in support of those we’re working on now. Criminal justice is a huge area of legislative concern, and while we have no illusions that we can cover everything, we seek to do the best we can.
Jon Tetherly is Chair of the Actual Justice Task Team of the Southern New England Conference, UCC