The state House of Representatives recently passed a criminal justice reform bill. The bill includes more than 200 amendments to current laws that aim to increase equality within the criminal justice system. The Senate has also passed its own version of a criminal justice reform bill. The two bills will now head to a conference committee. The Gazette recently conducted a question-and-answer session with local Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez about criminal justice reform. [This session has been edited.]
Q: What prompted you to get involved with criminal justice reform?
A: I’ve been involved in this issue my entire life. I’ve seen and experienced firsthand the effects of a failed criminal justice system in our community and beyond. My mom Maria was a Juvenile Probation Officer in the Boston Juvenile Court. She raised my sister and myself in the Mission Hill Main projects during a time when it seemed like there was little hope given the horrible conditions of the property and the influences of drugs and violence that stigmatized us and the community. As a Puerto Rican boy, I struggled understanding why my friends and I were constantly being told to assume “the position”. We grew up believing that the War on Drugs and Stop and Frisk policies were only for us Black and Latinos, especially during the era of busing and the murder of Carol DiMati, among other events. It seemed that we were being persecuted and prosecuted with impunity despite the efforts of people like my mom and so many in our community who spent their life seeking social justice. I was lucky, but many of my childhood friends felt and continue to feel the impacts of an unjust system. Many made mistakes and continue to serve time because of poverty, the lack of educational and enrichment opportunities, and distorted laws and systems.
Q: Have there been any poignant stories you have heard during the whole effort that have particularly resonated with you and show the need for reform to be done?
A: We’ve been working with the Bromley-Heath Tenant Task Force and other partners to figure out how we tackle the opportunity gap while addressing the horrors of heroin, fentanyl and gun violence head on. We’ve organized CORI sealing days and public safety meetings, and held countless summer barbecues and holiday events. Despite these efforts, many people feel trapped in their apartments. They’re afraid to leave because of the drugs and violence that surround them. There are a lot of great youth that live there and want to do the right thing, but it’s easy to feel stuck, make a mistake, and then get caught up in the system. There are also people who hold the community hostage. I’ve taken a thoughtful approach to criminal justice reform with these folks in mind. The criminal justice reform package I worked to pass ensures balance between public safety and creating opportunities for people to get back on their feet. It moves us to a system that takes into account the unique situations of individuals – be it substance use, mental health conditions, or their social environment – and helps them improve their lives.
Q: What will it mean to the communities that you represent, specifically Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill, if you and your colleagues are successful with criminal justice reform?
A: The bill we passed in the House means that many people will have the chance to expunge their juvenile records. It means that if you have a marijuana possession conviction, you will be able to erase that permanently from your record. It means that judges will have to look at the whole person to determine what options are available given the infraction. We know that many people enter the system with complex mental health issues, significant substance use issues and extreme poverty. These reforms mean that people in our communities can finally secure a job, find housing, and move on with their lives.
Q: What can community members and/or groups do if they want to be involved with the reform effort?
A: The best way to help is by getting involved in organizations that work to ensure economic justice in low-income communities through education and enrichment. In October, we had to really challenge the Senate to adopt funding in the state supplemental budget to fund the Safe and Successful Youth Initiative. This money makes a huge difference in the lives of our most at-risk youth – it funds outreach workers who go out and talk to people we know are at the forefront of the violence in our community. MissionSAFE and ROCA receive this funding, and oftentimes their work enables a person to finish high school or work a job. I bring this up because there are too few people who want to work with young people actively involved in gun violence. On Halloween, 16-year-old Gerrod Brown was murdered. Gerrod was a young man many of us knew as a quiet kid who loved basketball and helped his peer leaders at RealKidz. And it is in his and others’ memories that we will work hard to make the Jackson Square Recreational Center a reality. Criminal justice reform starts at the street level and goes beyond supporting legislation. True criminal justice reform is accomplished when we have a community that stands up to drugs and violence while simultaneously creating real economic opportunities that raise everyone from poverty to success.