Criminal Justice Reform Package Clears Senate

Last night, the Senate approved our criminal justice reform package by a vote of 27-10 – a major milestone in an effort that goes back over 20 years for me. I’m very grateful for the hard work that all of my colleagues and our staff team did to get to yes.

The night before the debate, I lay awake wondering if we might somehow fail to come together around the complex package. I was not sure we had the support we needed and I was not sure how the package might win or lose support as it evolved through the day of debate.

Criminal justice reform is intrinsically controversial. Most of us have enough awareness to have opinions about criminal justice, but we all tend to be touching different parts of the elephant. The perspective of a crime victim may be very different from the perspective of someone with a relative who has been incarcerated.

Criminal lawyers – defense attorneys and prosecutors — bring a lot of important expertise to the conversation but, by long habit, they tend to state their views in the strongest possible terms, leaving legislators struggling to figure out where truth and balance really lie. A strong critical letter signed by 9 of the state’s 11 district attorneys raised tensions about the bill in the days coming up to the debate.

When a bill comes up for consideration, legislators can propose amendments to it in advance. Senators proposed 162 amendments before the debate began. Some of those amendments would dial back on the reforms designed to “lift people up instead of locking them up.” Other amendments would strengthen those reforms.

The Senate is pretty evenly balanced on criminal justice issues and I really did not know how the votes on the most controversial amendments would break. I could easily imagine amendments being approved that reduced support for the bill.

As I lay awake the night before, it didn’t seem likely that we would actually fail to pass the bill, but I had no confidence that we would reach the magic 27 number. 27 is the number of votes necessary to override a gubernatorial veto.

Through the day, we had close vote after close vote on major amendments – in most instances, the pro-reform position prevailed, but often by only one or two votes.
While debate continued on the major issues, legislators and staff moved around the chamber working out details on less controversial adjustments. We did not break for dinner until 7:30PM, but at that time there were 100 amendments still unresolved.

Through the dinner break a few of us worked to reach agreements on as many of the less controversial issues as possible, so that when we reconvened we could move quickly. It nonetheless took until 1:30AM to finish the job and I had no idea until the end of the process what the final vote would be.

This was by far the largest, most complex piece of legislation that I have carried and I now appreciate in a way that I never appreciated before the intensity of the team work that needs to happen to get major legislation done. I finished the day feeling enormous gratitude towards my colleagues and all the dozens of staff professionals involved.

The journey ahead remains long. The House needs to get through their own debate on reform – more arduous because the body is four times larger. Then we need to successfully negotiate the differences between the House and Senate approaches to reform.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

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43 Comments

  1. Congratulations, and thank you! It may have been a team effort, but without you at the helm it wouldn’t have happened.

  2. It was exciting watching the debate and listening to impassioned speeches keeping the focus of the effort on track. Most weakening amendments were defeated and strengthening amendments were added. I hope the House is able to be as deliberative despite its larger size so that Massachusetts focuses on rehabilitation and support for the large numbers of substance abusers, misguided youth, and mentally ill that make up the majority of those in custody (especially if they come from impoverished communities or communities with less access to power). I look forward to seeing comprehensive reform passed this session. Thanks for all your hard work to move it this far.

  3. Thank you for the extremely clear description of the process in the Senate. Your team-building must have been very effective.

  4. Although you are no longer my state senator, I continue to subscribe to this newsletter as I feel that it is one of the most informative sources of the issues before the legislature – and that you actually answer our questions! Hearing your opinions and their rationale gives confidence to your constituents that they have a representative whose priority is to have a reasoned vote.
    I feel that this process has been evident in your leadership as co-chair of the Judiciary Committee and that this is a reason that your many colleagues supported this bill.
    Although I do not agree with all of the parts of the bill, particularly on the changes in the bail process, I recognize that this bill contains important provisions that will be about needed changes. Thanks for all of your hard work!

  5. Congratulations on the passage in the senate. I wrote to my state rep (Kevin Honan) about my feeling on the bill hoping it will somehow help out. I know the House is a pretty stubborn group but the passage of this shows it can and should be done. Hope you slept well after all of this.

  6. Well done! This legislation is much needed. I hope your efforts will survive the House and the Governor without being watered down too badly.

  7. Senator Brownsberger,your work and those of others is so appreciated by all the people for whom criminal justice issues are a struggle for life and meaning and wholeness. No amount of thanks for your struggle and that of others is sufficient.

  8. Thank you and the other senators who did an amazing job. Certainly this is the best bill to pass since in the over 20 years I have been involved in criminal justice reform.

  9. Thank you so much, Will, for your sustained focus on this important but challenging effort. Massachusetts will be a better state because your thoughtful analysis and genuine commitment inspired others and brought it to a successful conclusion. Congratulations to you and your team.

  10. Well done Will. So good to read a positive piece about legislation that moves our state and humanity forward. Many thanks to you and your colleagues.

    With gratitude, Elodia

  11. 27 was truly a magic number. Thank you Will. I am forever hopeful the House will continue to move forward and the criminal reform will happen.

  12. Will,
    Thanks for your years of hard work to improve the criminal justice system in Massachusetts. Congratulations!

  13. This bill would never have passed in this form without you, Senator. You were the true leader on this issue. Your commitment to actively engage all the stakeholders (often over and over again), your willingness to listen and participate in civil thoughtful discussions, your willingness to change your mind when you learned something new, your support of those who brought a different issue to the table and your ability to keep this huge tanker moving in the right direction; It was nothing short of masterful. The senate president was behind you and the Ways and Means Chair and Staff did a great job, but it was your unwavering leadership, hard work and steady captaining that got this bill through in this form and with the support of 27 senators. To say nothing of how damn smart you are! God your smart. Where in your head, do you keep all that stuff??

  14. Your efforts on behalf of criminal justice and sentence reform continue to be mind-boggling. I am constantly reminded of my and others’ responsibility to keep this progress alive in the challenging life ahead in our world. I hope everyone considers putting boots on the ground and money in the coffers to expand education and drug treatment programs to offer the best chance of avoiding engagement with the criminal justice system. with gratitude, Lorraine

  15. Thank you so much for this Herculean effort. I’m hoping all these accomplishments can somehow be maintained in the final version of the bill coming out of conference committee.

  16. Congratulations Will & to your devoted & super Team work!! A good leader like yourself can make a difference- Thank you!

  17. Congratulations and thank you for your leadership in shepherding this much need legislation!

  18. Thank you Will!!! You have done a masterful job in advancing justice for all. Thank you for all your hard work and sleepless nights.
    Nancy

  19. Thank you so much for all you’ve done — and for giving us this insight into what it looked and felt like from your side.

    I had things I needed to do on Thursday, but I could hardly think of anything else, and I’m so glad I was able to go to the State House for the last couple hours of debate and the final vote. Whatever happens next, I will remember that feeling for the rest of my life.

    Yes — there’s a lot still to do. But I hope you are taking satisfaction in what’s been done and getting some rest.

  20. Will,

    Kudos for a battle well fought and ultimately won!And thank you for such a sincere recap of the process.

    Sue

  21. What is there to say but congratulations Will. You deserve our deepest appreciation for leading this effort and for your effort over many, many years to reform our approach to and our policies around criminal justice. Thank you.

  22. Thank you for all of your efforts. We can all continue to work for reform as this is a great start. I thank you for putting your heart & soul into the effort and I can only hope that the House will be willing to do the same.Who we put into prison, how we treat them when they are there and how we welcome them back into the community says a lot about who we are as a society. Let’s hope that in this legislation, humanity wins.

  23. Thank you indeed for such a colossal amount of work, for the evening meetings, for your time and patience responding to everyone and steering it through. What a fine line. I had not realized that the public could attend the debate and will certainly hope to attend that in the House.

  24. Thank you for this. It’s an arduous process but I am so happy we are making progress towards a more just system.

    1. Will, this is great news.

      I just read that your bill will allow men to be assigned to women’s state prisons if they so choose and to shower with the women. The men just have to say that they are now “women”.
      That’s just common sense isn’t it? To allow men and women prisoners to shower together and even have sex.
      I am sure the men will treat the women prisoners with great respect. This is good for the stability of society, and to make prison a more pleasant social experience.

      This is a great victory for LGBT, Will. Many congrats on your fine work on behalf of the transgender community.

      See this article: “Senate Criminal Justice Bill Would Let Inmates Dictate Prison Based On Gender Identity”:
      http://newbostonpost.com/2017/11/07/senate-criminal-justice-bill-would-let-inmates-dictate-prison-based-on-gender-identity/

      It’s just like the “bathroom” bill. Choose your own sex!

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