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NASW Testifies on Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Thursday, June 25, 2015  
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Dear Chairman Brownsberger, Chairman Fernandes, and all Honorable Members of the Committee,

The Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers would like to express its strong support for multiple pieces of legislation before the committee today; repealing mandatory minimums (SB786, HB 1620); enacting bail reform (SB802, HB 1584); and the Justice Reinvestment Act (SB64, HB1429).

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is the largest organization of professional social workers in the world, with over 132,000 members. The Massachusetts Chapter of NASW is the major professional social work organization in the state, and is committed to the mission of advancing professional social work practice, promoting human rights, social and economic justice, and unimpeded access to services for everyone. Its 7,600 members in the commonwealth work in a broad range of settings including hospitals, community agencies, government, academia, business, nursing homes, schools, and private practice. It is significant to note that a plurality of the organization’s public policy agenda for this legislative session focuses on criminal justice reform.

NASW supporting multiple bills underscores the interdependence of its legislative priorities. As social workers, we see the issues of incarceration, mental health, substance abuse, economic growth, and community investment as inextricably intertwined. Our society needlessly incarcerates those struggling with addiction or unable to post bail, which saddles individuals with lifetimes of poverty and inescapable cycles of injustice.

We view these bills as a first step to reducing incarceration rates and promoting an economically just and treatment-based society. NASW-MA stands with other allies in urging the Committee to report these bills out favorably. In the following pages, we will describe the social work profession’s perspective in greater detail for, the Justice Reinvestment Act, bail reform, and mandatory minimums.

H.1429/S.64 An Act To Increase Neighborhood Safety and Opportunity

This Act was suggested and is backed by the Jobs not Jails Coalition, made up of dozens of community non-profits,  to which NASW belongs. Sec. 1 of the Act calls for the repeal of Mandatory Minimum sentences for drug offenses.  Mandatory minimums are one of the main factors in overincarceration in Massachusetts.  According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, the total amount Massachusetts spent on prisons, probation and parole increased from $907.8 million in 2003 to $1.21 billion in 2012. That’s an increase of 33 percent. Spending on higher education decreased in that period by 1%. Today we spend tens of millions less on college education than on our prisons. Section 1 also proposes reducing low level property and drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, to concentrate our prison resources on more serious offenders, not on those who pose no real danger and will clearly only be harmed and hardened by prison.

As social workers we work every day with families whose youth are damaged by our prison policy. This is a story that our members hear over and over from concerned families they try to support. 

If Massachusetts, like many other states would implement Justice Reinvestment, tax money allotted for caging and hardening young men could be diverted to a state trust fund to pay for job-training, apprentice-ship programs, and youth summer jobs. Studies done by Boston’s own city counselors have shown that job participation directly correlates with lower Boston murder rates.  We feel that this and diversion of prison monies to effective longer-term drug treatment are the real keys to reducing crime in our communities.

To quote Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, "The criminal justice system is devouring our resources; putting people who have committed low-level offenses, who are perfectly capable of being rehabilitated, away for lengthy sentences and turning them into hardened criminals; destroying families and communities; and callously throwing away lives. We cannot afford to continue to invest in such a system."

H.1584/S.802 An Act Reforming Pretrial Process

NASW-MA is proud to have had in our midst a strong Criminal Justice Shared Interest Group and proud that social workers within it took the initiative to form the Massachusetts Bail Fund in 2010. Since then, social workers have been the mainstay of the Bail Fund’s committees and volunteer base for the time-consuming work of bailing people out.  When the Fund and others brought information on what other states have accomplished in bail and pretrial reform in November of 2013, our members helped form the Pretrial Working Group to assist in follow-through. 

NASW-MA along with many others have now learned that bail practices had strayed from their legitimate purpose of assuring that those charged with crimes return to court for trials. Social work’s historical role of helping the poor and fighting economic deprivation and injustice leads us to grieve for those who would return to court and yet have bail set and set too high for them to afford.  Social workers who work with those unable to come up with what most would consider low bails know the great human cost of even short periods of incarceration to those held in jail, their children, parents, work places, and communities.  We all must face the losses: families are split, jobs lost, housing lost, and too often recouping what is lost is not possible.  Studies showing that outcomes in court are worse for those with equivalent charges and who are tried from jail than they are for those who are in the community when tried.  This is a very cruel and unjust result. 

NASW sees change in bail and pre-trial services as a matter of economic justice and also a way to reduce incarceration.  We join with others who are aware that the number of those being held pretrial in the Commonwealth has been rising and are grateful that Sheriffs and others are looking at this problem and seeking ways to reduce the numbers.  As the Vera Institute for Justice put it recently, “Jails are Incarceration’s Front Door,” as it documented in a February 2015 report subtitled the “Misuse of Jails in America.”

On the basis of our profession's value commitment to every individual reaching full potential, NASW-MA wants as little imprisonment as possible.  We believe that all persons should live in the least restrictive conditions compatible with public safety.  While we know that many well-meaning persons, including social workers, try to help those who are jailed in various county jails across the Commonwealth, NASW-MA cannot embrace the idea of helping the unfortunate through imprisoning them as a social good.  

We understand that some of those being held pre-trial may get help in jail that they would not get in the community currently, but it is the provision of community services that must be the goal of us all.  We hope that examination of the ethical issues involved will lead you and other policy makers to favor reforms of bail to minimize its use and offer pretrial services where appropriate.  We also hope that you support increasing the kinds of community-based services that are provided without coercion and without loss of liberty to those not convicted of a crime.  In our view, it is vital that defendants awaiting trial are not presumed guilty beforehand.  

H.1620/S.786 An Act Eliminating Mandatory Minimum Sentences Related to Drug Offenses

Our members work daily in communities and with individuals and families who have been devastated by mandatory minimum sentences imposed on those convicted of non-violent drug offenses.  We urge you to enact this legislation to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and allow the judicial system to respond to individuals thoughtfully, with a sentences that are crafted to fit each  individual and the his or her offense.

The Criminal Justice Shared Interest Group of  NASW MA Chapter is  composed of over a hundred members who have  particular interests and expertise in the area of criminal justice  and the several areas of this broad field that are in great need of reform. Many of our members work in varied ways in the judicial system or with families and individuals in the community that are affected daily by the criminal justice system.

We all know that addiction is a serious problem that has profound impacts on our communities and state.  As social workers, we believe that our current crisis can be eradicated only with a thoughtful response that includes treatment as at least one component of that response.  The current law prohibits judges from being able to order drug offenders who face mandatory minimum sentences to treatment programs, drug court or probation, even if the need for treatment is clear and the individual is not a threat to public safety. Our current legal requirements have not reduced the problem of addiction or the crime resulting from it.  A more measured, individualized response is needed if real change is to occur. 

If mandatory minimums for all drug offenses are repealed, judges would still be able to sentence a drug offender to a lengthy sentence if they deem it warranted, but they would also have the ability to impose a more individualized sentence that addresses the root of the problem and better serves the individual and society.  With the proposed changes in the law, our judicial system would have the opportunity to truly help individuals struggling with addiction to move beyond their addiction into treatment and recovery; we urge you to give the system the tools to allow this to happen.

Our members have seen the impact that mandatory minimum sentences have had on children, families and communities.  Children are without a mother or a father (and sometimes both) for years as a result of their parents’ incarceration for non-violent drug offenses.  Individuals have lost jobs and homes and have been further isolated from their communities.

In addition to supporting the main thrust of the H.1620/S.786 to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, NASW also supports other of its provisions:  removing minimum amounts of fines; allowing those already serving mandatory minimums to be eligible for earned “good time” credits as well as work release programs, and to be eligible for parole after serving half of their sentences.  These changes would provide new and significant incentives for prisoners currently serving mandatory minimum to take advantage of educational and vocational programs in prison, enhancing the likelihood that they will have improved chances of adjusting to the worlds of work, family and community when they are released.

Thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony in this matter and for your consideration.  We believe that it is possible to ensure the safety of the community while providing a measured and thoughtful response to drug offenses.  We appreciate your consideration of this important legislation.

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