By Hannah L. Kilson
The BBA and its members have made criminal justice reform one of our core policy issues. It is our belief that those who find themselves interacting with the justice system should not only be treated with fairness and respect but given every opportunity to rehabilitate and reintegrate after being charged with, tried for, or found guilty of committing a crime. After all, we don’t make our neighborhoods safer, healthier, or more livable by employing purely punitive responses to criminal behavior.
In fact, the many ways that the system, as operating today, falls short of our shared ideal of justice has led to the emergent use of the term “criminal legal system,” to better emphasize the continuing work that falls on all of us—the BBA included—to continue striving toward a criminal justice system that truly delivers justice for all and is therefore worthy of the name.
The BBA’s advocacy in this area has taken many forms over the years, perhaps best summed up in our 2017 report, “No Time to Wait: Recommendations for a Fair and Effective Criminal Justice System.” In that report, the BBA championed for many types of reform, including:
- Increased opportunities for pre-trial diversion for more defendants
- Significant reforms to the Massachusetts cash bail and parole systems
- The repeal of mandatory minimum sentences, particularly for drug crimes
- Expansion of recidivism reduction programs
- Reassessment of the Commonwealth’s criminal record laws
Some of these positions were eventually adopted by lawmakers themselves in the Act Relative to Criminal Justice Reform in 2018. Then, in his FY2023 state budget, Governor Charlie Baker finally eliminated fines and fees for those on probation and parole, moving the Commonwealth closer to a more just criminal legal system.
That report has since provided a framework for how the BBA has put those positions into action in a variety of ways.
For example, the BBA has long been a proponent for reform on the issue of criminal records. This January, we submitted an amicus brief in the case Commonwealth v. J.F. arguing for the automatic sealing of criminal records in cases where a defendant is found not guilty, a grand jury declines to indict, or a judge finds no probable cause—as the legislature intended.
In 2019, we launched a monthly CORI Sealing Clinic in partnership with Boston Bar Foundation grantee Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), a first-of-its kind project that assists low-income clients in asking courts to seal their criminal records with the help of volunteer attorneys. CORI sealing is an important element of restorative justice, as it ensures that a person’s involvement with the carceral system will not result in the inability to find a home, job, or access to other resources—especially given that involvement with the carceral system is not equitable between and across demographics. Black and Latinx people are disproportionately represented in the carceral system in the U.S. and in Massachusetts, meaning communities of color are disproportionately impacted by its consequences.
As a result of that clinic, we have trained hundreds of volunteer lawyers over the last several years in the legal sealing of criminal records. Nearly five years later, we continue to support the mission of that clinic and its dedicated volunteers. Contact information for the Clinic can be found in the resource list.
The BBA also supports recent efforts to expand and improve clemency in Massachusetts. At our June Law Day celebration, Governor Maura Healey addressed her decision to support pardons to seven individuals serving sentences for drug-related and other charges. Stating that “justice delayed is justice denied,” the Governor cited “barriers and uncertainties” facing those individuals, including difficulties finding housing and work opportunities, stemming from decades-old criminal records. My predecessor, Chinh Pham, applauded these efforts, observing that “[w]ith proper oversight and transparency, pardons can bolster the rule of law by offering a safety valve to redress errors such as wrongful convictions or unjust sentences and to recognize and reward individuals for successful rehabilitation—which is, after all, one of the primary goals of criminal sentencing.”
In keeping with these priorities, this special edition of the Boston Bar Journal examines innovative, community-focused approaches to justice and re-entry. The articles herein discuss recent developments in CORI-sealing, Trial Court Community Justice Centers, and clemency practice tips for attorneys. We’re also pleased to publish an interview with Thomas Koonce, who received a historic commutation under Governor Charlie Baker’s administration and now works as a restortative justice facilitator working with young men re-entering their communities after incarceration.
As you read, allow this issue to serve as a reminder that all individuals who find themselves entangled in the criminal legal system deserve to be treated with fairness, respect, and dignity, and that accountability, rehabilitation, and reintegration should be the primary goals of that system. Thoughtful consideration of how we treat those affected by this system is paramount to ensuring equal protection and treatment under the law and access to justice for all.
As Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, poignantly said, “We are more than the worst thing we have ever done.” If we fail to follow this guiding principle, we are failing victims, communities, criminal defendants, and each other.