Many people view the legislative system as being highly mechanical due to the complexity of the rules, laws, and procedures that govern it; however, the process really begins in a very basic way. Each law starts as an idea which can come from anyone: an individual or group of citizens, a legislator or legislative committee, the executive or judicial branch, or a lobbyist.
Every year, thousands of ideas are heard before the Massachusetts Legislature, but very few are actually incorporated into law. So, what about a bill determines its success? Or conversely, what sends a bill into an endless loop of study sessions and delays?
Any good proposal starts off as a simple bill. You need to find good powerful sponsors who care about it and will try to present the bill early. You need grassroots support and you need an early and aggressive education campaign.
Many things go into crafting a simple bill that legislators will want to sponsor. Simple bills are ideas that seek to improve upon a current law or solve a problem in the current law. Part of the BBA’s role in this process is to bring together the experts on a particular topic. One of the ways that the BBA assembles experts is in the formation of a task force to study a topic and to issue recommendations for improvement.
Take, for example, the BBA’s Task Force to Improve the Accuracy and Reliability of the Criminal Justice System. Formed in September 2008 by then-President Kathy Weinman, the Task Force constituted the broadest group of criminal justice participants ever assembled by a Bar organization to address wrongful convictions. Under the leadership of its co-chairs David Meier and Martin Murphy, the task force sought to develop recommendations that would increase the accuracy and reliability of the criminal justice system.
The Task Force released its report, Getting it Right: Improving the Accuracy and Reliability of the Criminal Justice System in Massachusetts, in December 2009 at a press conference held at the BBA. Members of the task force fielded questions from the media and participated in interviews with outlets such as the Boston Globe and Neighborhood Network News.
The report makes three recommendations in the area of forensic science:
(1) enactment of a Massachusetts statute to guarantee post-conviction access to DNA testing and to require preservation of biological forensic evidence.
(2) expanding the membership and function of the state’s Forensic Science Advisory Board to include scientists and lawyers who are not prosecutors.
(3) create protocols and training in best practices for evidence collection, processing and retention.
While the release of the report marked the culmination of the Task Force’s work, the lobbying efforts were only just underway. Members of the Task Force met with the chairs of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, answering their questions and garnering their support.
But there is more work to be done because, in recent years, similar bills dealing with forensic evidence issues have stalled in the legislature. This work will include partnering with the New England Innocence Project, along with the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the American Civil Liberties Union, both of which have filed similar proposals.
The energy around the Task Force’s work still continues. Last month, the BBA hosted a program that featured an engaging panel discussion regarding wrongful convictions and ways to improve upon the Commonwealth’s criminal justice system. The panel included Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Chairman Eugene O’Flaherty, Honorable Margaret Hinkle of the Superior Court Administrative Office, Robert Merner (formerly of the Boston Police Department), Joseph Savage Jr, Martin Murphy, and David Meier.
The BBA thanks the Task Force for its tireless efforts, and is pushing for this good idea to be passed.
– Kathleen M. Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association