Criminal Justice Reports

Criminal Justice Reports

These recent reports on major issues by team members include:

Life Without Parole in Massachusetts

by Nathaniel Harrison

The Massachusetts criminal legal system in recent decades has come to rely heavily on the imposition of life-long prison sentences – in most cases for persons convicted of first-degree murder – that specifically exclude realistic parole eligibility. These life without parole sentences, known as LWOP, fail to recognize the human potential for transformation, for spiritual growth and personal rehabilitation. In effect, they amount to the destruction of a life by the state. They do not enhance public safety. They are death sentences that condemn men and women to die in prison after decades upon decades of incarceration – decades that have a devastating effect on families and communities.

Massachusetts is unfortunately a national leader in the application of LWOP sentences.

As of January 2022, according to the Department of Correction (DOC), there were 5,316 people incarcerated the Commonwealth’s state prisons. Roughly 1,000 of them were serving LWOP, or nearly 19 percent of the total state prison population – one of the highest, if not the highest, such percentages in the country.

The state’s African American community is disproportionately impacted by LWOP, with DOC statistics -- as of January 2020 -- showing that African Americans, who constitute 7-9 percent of the state population, accounted for about 35 percent of those serving LWOP. 

But in the last 20 years or so, consistent with a growing national awareness of the futility and cruelty of mass incarceration, there has been mounting resistance to excessive sentencing in general and LWOP in particular.

Here in Massachusetts, the last two legislative sessions have seen bills introduced that would end LWOP by mandating retroactive parole review eligibility starting at 25 years of incarceration.

While neither measure made it out of the joint committee on the judiciary, activists are confident that appropriate legislation will be re-introduced in the 2023-2024 session that begins in January.

It’s important to note that the campaign to eliminate LWOP does not imply automatic release from prison. The legislation is simply based on the premise that after spending a quarter of a century in a cage, a man or woman should have the right to go before the parole board to make a case for release.

The incarcerated men and woman who would benefit from the passage of such legislation would have made substantive, documented efforts over a period of 25 years to mature emotionally in preparation for a productive return to family and community.

Since 2015 eliminating LWOP has been the goal of a group now known as Parole Review For All (PRFA), a unit of the Boston-based Criminal Justice Policy Coalition (CJPC). The Coalition for the past 25 years has been advocating criminal justice reform in Massachusetts in a number of domains.

In early 2021, PRFA joined forces with a half a dozen other like-minded organizations to form the Campaign To End Life Without Parole (CELWOP).

CELWOP seeks to engage formerly incarcerated persons in a state-wide drive to raise public awareness of LWOP and its prevalence in Massachusetts.

PRFA and CELWOP participants have connected with faith-based groups, trade unions, educational organizations and civic groups in a public education campaign that complements legislative moves to do away with LWOP.

Activists are mindful of the fact that ending LWOP is likely to be a long-haul effort -- one that will ultimately result in a more humane, merciful society. In holding individuals accountable for criminal offenses, the Commonwealth is best served by healing practices that preserve rather than destroy life.

image by Ron Sachs, for Pexels

Women and Incarceration

by Louellyn Lambros, Policy Director, The National Council for incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls 

The UCC Actual Justice Task Team has been a strong supporter of Families for Justice as Healing (FJAH) in its efforts to stop the construction of a new $50   million women's prison and enact a 5-year prison and jaill construction moratorium.

FJAH was established a dozen years ago by four incarcerated Black women, in the courtyard of Danbury Federal Prison in Connecticut. At the time, Michelle Alexander's excellent book The New Jim Crow was a national bestseller, but it made no mention of women. FJAH arose to address that omission.

The number of women incarcerated in the United States increased 750% between 1980 and today, and in a country with less than 5% of the world's population, close to one out of every three women incarcerated anywhere in the world is incarcerated here. 

Some years ago, FJAH initiated a listening tour to ask formerly incarcerated women what would have made the difference for them, what would have kept them from landing on a prison bunk. The overwhelming response was affordable housing and a secure income. For this reason, when we heard that the state was planning to invest $50 million in the same failed solutions to incarcerate future generations of women, we said no. Fighting for racial justice demands that we invest money in people and communities instead.

Last September, with the support of the UCC Actual Justice Task team, FJAH members and friends spent a week marching several miles a day, starting in Springfield and ending up in Boston. We did this to raise public awareness about the proposed moratorium, and before we knew it, many legislators were on board.

The legislature included a 5-year moratorium on new prison and jail construction in its infrastructure bond bill. This provision was vetoed by the governor, and not enough time was left for the legislature to override the veto before the end of the session. There have been calls to ask for a special session to complete this and other unfinished business. 

In addition, FJAH is calling for clemency for women at MCI-Framingham who are old, sick, survivors of abuse, and/or have already been in prison for 10 years. FAH is also leading an effort to enact primary caretakers legislation which encourages judges to consider alternative consequences for transgressions when an individual is the primary caretaker of a dependent child. The harm caused to children from having an incarcerated parent is incalculable. Primary caretakers legislation passed in Massachusetts, and bills will be introduced early in the 2023 session in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

With the leadership of the UCC Actual Justice Task Team, we look forward to engaging the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ in this important work. Together we can fight racial injustice and work to keep families together. 

Juvenile Justice

by Meredith Moody

The more they learned, the more appalled members of the Social Justice Coalition of South Church, Andover MA (SJC) became, as witnesses of the unfairness and ineffectiveness of the Massachusetts juvenile justice system. Heeding Amos’ declaration of what God wants for us, the SJC decided to advocate for two bills in the Massachusetts Legislature.  Being new to legislative advocacy, SJC members made careful study of “Lobbying on a Shoestring”, sought counsel from the Citizens for Juvenile  Justice (CfJJ) and came to the Actual Justice Task Team to listen and learn.

One bill was for the comprehensive improvement of juvenile data collection.  This is sorely needed to focus on Massachusetts’ extreme racial disparities in juvenile justice.  The other bill was to prevent the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences based on juvenile convictions.  This effort was to stop the amplification of Massachusetts’ racial inequities arising in the juvenile system.

Though the two bills died in the Senate Ways and Means with the end of the session this summer, the SJC learned and educated many.  These bills will come up in the next session.  Here’s what the SJC did:

Direct Advocacy actions

  • Email to SJC individual members’ legislators asking to co-sponsor bills
  • Phone calls to these asking for co-sponsorship
  • Email from SJC to all legislators whose districts coincided with South Church members’ homes
  • Emails from South Church congregation asking for support for the bills
  • Created and sent bill summaries to all members of:  
    • Joint Committee of the Judiciary, 
    • Joint Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee, 
    • Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, 
    • Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, 
    • Joint Committee on Racial Equity, 
    • Civil Rights, and Inclusion
  • Created and sent bill fact sheets to all above legislators
  • Joined The Massachusetts Coalition for Juvenile Justice Reform with 60+ member organizations with the blessings of South Church’s Church Council, to leverage advocacy for the bills
  • SJC members wrote letters to the editor in their local papers 
  • Attended statehouse public hearings and submitted written testimony
  • Sent fact sheets and bill summaries to Senate Ways and Means (SW&M)
  • SJC members emailed Senate Ways and Means member from their district
  • Created and sent 4-minute video and email template for support to pastors and social justice advocates at 156 UCC churches in the SW&M members’ districts
  • Phone calls to SW&M chair, vice chair, and assistant vice chair.

Many hours were spent attending educational webinars, study on the internet, interviewing attorneys.  Also, hours in meetings:  planning, implementing, evaluating.

Restorative Justice: An Opportunity for Right Relationship and Healing

by Brenda Nolan, Chair, Restorative Justice Task Team of the SNEUCC

Restorative Justice is a way of life. Janet Connors, the first person to do a victim—offender dialogue in the state of Massachusetts, advised us to do community building circles in our communities to begin the mindset shift away from punishment and separation toward restorative justice and building beloved community. As we learn to speak and listen from our hearts, barriers to understanding and being understood come down, and we can accompany each other on the roads of our lives. When conflict and harm happen, communities whose members know each other as human beings can circle up and decide on a path forward together. Restorative justice is about building and mending the community fabric of our lives together. When people see restorative justice as “another way to punish” or focused on the needs of the harm doer at the expense of those who have experienced harm, or decisions are made by those with the most power, the mindset shift needed to change the system of domination that benefits a few at the expense of many has not been made and restorative justice is not happening.

The legislation in Massachusetts that came out of the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform legislation has shortcomings and needs to take into consideration:

  • Confidentiality needs to be protected for all participants in a restorative process. Truthtelling is essential for stopping harm from happening and creating possibilities for moving forward in a good way. Building trust is part of a restorative process and trust needs to be protected.
  • Restorative justice pograms need to arise from communities who know their own needs. They need to be run by people who look like and understand the life experiences and strengths of their own communities not by people who drop into others lives and then drop out.
  • The harms/crimes for which restorative justice is the most transformative were excluded from the legislation and need to be included.
  • The purpose of restorative justice is to build and strengthen human connection in communities so people can survive and thrive. At the end of the day are people more connected to their communities? Measurements for success need to be created that reflect this and recognize that the pace of healing from trauma is different for different people and different life experiences. A cookie cutter approach discounts that the needs of communities, their resources and life experiences are different. There should not be a monopoly of one program across the state.
  • Restorative justice practitioners need to understand how trauma shows up and how trauma is healed. Classism, sexism, racism, ableism, and religious prejudice are pillars of domination systems that benefit some at the expense of others. Separation of our own humanity from that of others needs healing.

The Restorative Justice Advisory Committee formed by the 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Legislation (chpt 256 B) is not functioning. There is a need for representation on the board by those who know restorative justice and have the lived experience of those who live in communities most impacted by the criminal legal system that was built to serve the needs of the dominant class. Three of the last four meetings have been cancelled due to the lack of a quorum. Some members appointed a few months ago have only attended one or two meetings. At least one member has been absent for a year or more. Open meeting laws have, at times, prevented the public’s meaningful engagement.

If restorative justice is to grow and develop in Massachusetts in a good way that serves everyone, those from communities most impacted by criminal-legal system involvement that has decimated their communities need to be central to the process and development of restorative justice in the state.

The needs of those impacted by harm are central to restorative practice. Centering the needs of those who cause the harm over those impacted by the harm again leave impacted parties out in the cold to experience more harm unsupported.

My understanding of restorative justice had its beginnings in my own healing journey from trauma embedded in white supremacy culture. Until recently, I did not see that my life and my human needs to thrive, belong and be connected, and those of my family members, were scripted and entangled with classism, sexism, racism, ableism, and religious prejudice. When I was taught to be a “good obedient girl,” I learned to separate myself from my body, feelings and thoughts. Instead of trusting my own inherent wisdom, I learned to rely on the opinions of others.

The domination system of rewards and punishment, instillation of the belief that there are good people and bad people who deserve to be rewarded or punished, that “good girls” don’t get angry, and that having “too many feelings” lands people in mental institutions became a slippery slope into trauma when my unexpressed and hidden fear and deep grief led to isolation, shame, depression and rage. My healing began when I acknowledged my feelings under my rage and found my needs for support and connection. When I discovered that I was trying to meet everyone else’s needs and make others happy at the expense of meeting my own needs for rest, support and respect, my rage disolved. Next was to acknowledge my depression with an openness to truth and what I had done wrong. That brought me to unexamined thoughts and beliefs, memories of a loved one lost, and the unexpressed grief I’d held hidden for too many years. Depression evaporated.

When a young person came to live with us, I saw firsthand the impact on a family whose mother had experienced domestic violence that no human being should have to endure. As a result of the ensuing trauma, she was unable to provide for her family. I saw firsthand how kids survived when their basic needs were not met by the adults in their lives and the communities around them were oblivious to their needs. The young person brought other kids to our home who were making their own way through poverty into adulthood. The poverty was the result of parental death, incarceration, violence due to sexism, classism, racism, ableism, and ensuing trauma without community support, access and availability of shelter, food, clothing and healthcare.

Young people worked to provide for themselves, for siblings, for grandparents, for parents without the dignity and respect shown others with adequate and more than adequate resources. There was a kindness and understanding among them that I found extraordinary. At the same time, decisions were made that showed lack of understanding that correlation and causation are not the same thing. Studies had shown that students who worked didn’t do as well in school as those who didn’t. Senior packages that were traditionally given to students in need were given to students who volunteered. The lives and needs of students who worked and wanted an education and those who were experiencing trauma and shame and struggling with school were invisible to those whose life experiences were different, some of whom saw the kids as “the problem” rather than the systemic causes of the situations the young people and their famiies were navigating that need acknowledgment and attention to change.

Martin Luther King said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” And in the Letter from the Birmingham Jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”


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