Criminal Justice Reform

Our challenge

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world [1], and Massachusetts incarcerates more people than any other Western democracy [2].

Massachusetts has some of the largest racial disparities in the country when it comes to incarceration.

  • Black/white disparity in incarceration: 14th worst in the nation [3]
  • Hispanic/white disparity in incarceration: 9th worst in the nation [4]

Massachusetts still has mandatory minimum sentencing [5], which means that for certain offenses, even nonviolent ones, there is an automatic prison sentence that the judge has no ability to override. Mandatory minimums are racist policies that also disproportionately hurt the poor.

Massachusetts passed criminal justice reform legislation in 2018. The law has been widely praised, but it still had major weaknesses, including adding new mandatory minimum sentences for opiates [6], which we should have learned is a bad policy during the War On Drugs.

Delays, delays

2018 was also not the first try at criminal justice reform. Legislation to repeal mandatory minimum sentences has been sitting in the state house since 2015 [7], and even then it was not a new issue.

Hand-wringing by House leadership has had real impacts on those who are caught up in our criminal justice system. In the years that passed without meaningful reforms, in a legislature with a Democratic super-majority, hundreds of people have been hurt by harsh laws like mandatory minimums that were still in place when they were sentenced.

We can do better than a legislature that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming by advocates into the 21st century.

Bills to watch

  • SD.533/HD.154 - An Act to Reduce Mass Incarceration (Rep. Livingstone, Sen Boncore)

  • HD 597 - An act to institute CORI reform (Holmes)

  • HD 1107 - An Act increasing voter registration and participation to help prevent recidivism (Holmes)

  • HD 3734 - An act reforming juvenile offender law (Holmes)

  • H.66 An act to protect the Commonwealth from dangerous persons (Baker)

    • This is the expansion of criteria for a dangerousness hearing which we would not want to see pass.
  • HD.1126 - An Act Relative to the Collection of Data on LGBTQI Prisoners Held in Restrictive Housing (Sponsors: Rep. Balser and Sen. Cyr)

    • This bill would require correctional facilities to collect data and regularly report on the status of LGBTQ prisoners held in restrictive housing and solitary confinement in the Commonwealth.

Our power

What can you do?

Call your representative

Commit to calling your state rep, we will contact you when your voice is needed most.

Join our phone bank

Call voters who live in districts with state reps who still don't support this bill.

Knock on doors

Engage voters at the door step about this issue and many more.

Common questions

Isn’t Massachusetts really progressive on criminal justice?

It’s a mixed bag. Massachusetts has a low overall incarceration rate, but some of the worst racial disparities. We have also been criticized for sending more paroled prisoners back to prison than Texas. While other states are certainly worse, Massachusetts has serious problems with its criminal justice system. Remember: even progressive U.S. states lock up more people than most other countries.

If we just passed a major bill, doesn’t that mean the legislature is doing a good job?

We passed major reforms because advocacy works. Our legislature spent several years failing to act on mass incarceration after passing “tough on crime” legislation in the Clinton years. Activists spent multiple legislative sessions trying to push the legislature to do something and they finally did, but that is not what a progressive legislature looks like!

And here’s the thing: inequities in our justice system typically follow other injustices in society. Our legislature has been mostly silent on the things that would make sentencing reform most effective: housing, health care, and education.


  1. Wikipedia. February 6, 2019.
  2. Prison Policy Initiative. December 28, 2018.
  3. The Sentencing Project. February 6, 2019.
  4. The Sentencing Project. February 6, 2019.
  5. Brownsberger, William. March 24, 2019.
  6. Brownsberger, William. March 24, 2019.
  7. Enwemeka, Zeninjor. WBUR, June 10, 2015.