When I began my service as Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary five years ago, I said I’d be glad to stay in the job for 10 or 15 years — there is so much to do and learn in the role.

Shifting to my new role as President Pro Tempore, I can look back on the last 5 years with some satisfaction, although I’ve left plenty for the next chair to do.

Lesson number one from the experience: Always seek to collaborate. The Archdiocese was rumored to be opposed to our proposed bill to give victims of child sexual abuse more time to seek legal redress. But when Representative John Lawn and I reached out to Cardinal O’Malley we were able to begin a constructive conversation that led to a big step forward for victims.

My House Chair, Claire Cronin, and I were able to take advantage of the movement for criminal justice reform and deliver a significant criminal justice reform bill above all because we formed a close working partnership, always retaining a sense of shared goals as we struggled over differences.

Our success in criminal justice reform also depended on our systematically reaching out to every single one of our colleagues to understand their hopes and concerns about reform. We were then able to craft a package that passed both branches with extraordinary majorities.

The long-term staff in the executive and judicial branches tend to be able offer deep expertise, as can many private attorneys. Reaching out to them and incorporating their good ideas and their reactions to our ideas contributed enormously to the quality of the criminal justice bill.

Lesson number two: Always listen when others speak from experience. One of the big elements in the final criminal justice bill is the reform of solitary confinement. I had been more focused on the issue of reducing the prison population than on the issue of what we do to people while they are in prison. People who were close to people in solitary made me understand the need for and possibility of reform in solitary confinement. That ended up being one of the reforms that I felt most strongly about. The bill benefitted in countless other ways from the voices of people affected by the system.

A third lesson, go big when you can. When I started as chair, I believed that I could make meaningful progress by passing enough bills making incremental changes. And that was not wrong. We did a number of what I call “stewardship bills” that gave me satisfaction — legislation making needed changes just to keep the system running smoothly and fairly, often in response to court decisions or federal law changes. Some of these were quite significant, most notably our rewrite of the statute governing juvenile murder cases.

But when it was clear we had a green light to do a big criminal justice bill, my team assembled essentially every good bill that had been languishing for years into a single package. That single package accomplished far more than I could possibly accomplish in several lifetimes of incremental legislating.

I also feel fortunate to have been chair when the second transgender rights bill came through. That was a simple bill culminating an important movement that had been fully built by advocates. Resolving the few remaining points of controversy and getting the bill across the finish line was special for me — nothing feels more right than standing up for civil rights.

It’s worth noting that much of the Judiciary Chair’s job is playing defense. A host of bills every year respond emotionally to tragedies or adverse outcomes in litigation. Most of these bills have unintended consequences and should not move forward, but saying no to them means disappointing people who have already had bad experiences.

I am grateful for the opportunity I had to serve as Judiciary Chair. I am hopeful that my new role in the Senate opens a new and even more interesting chapter.

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Published by Will Brownsberger

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

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24 Comments

  1. Good messages here from your experience that can be applied to many roles. Thanks for sharing.

    A question- who has responsibility to work on making governments and governing more simple, clear and efficient? I never seem to read much about these important characteristics for any organization. Who comes to work in the legislature or administration and thinks I’m responsible for improving the efficiency of government?
    I never worked in public realm and admittedly the private sector struggles with these issues as well. But my question goes to accountability… who thinks it’s part of “my job” to drive for simplicity, efficiency and more friction free processes that would enable more to get done. Does it evee get discussed?

    1. We talk a lot about how to get more done. Usually, it is in terms of particular people and relationships as opposed to system changes — “all politics is local”. But we have systems and rules conversations too with an eye toward improving productivity.

  2. But Will, you are fully in favor of “sanctuary cities”.
    In many cases, these cities have let illegal aliens go free when they have committed a crime and they then go on to murder, rob, and rape.
    Also recall the Mass. judge who let an illegal alien out the back door so he would not be apprehended by ICE who was waiting out front.
    Here’s the link: https://www.npr.org/2018/12/04/673091518/massachusetts-state-judge-suspected-of-aiding-an-immigrant-to-flee-ice
    There have been similar cases where the illegals were let off by Mass. judges because the judges – all on their own – did not want the illegal deported. These are law-breaking judges. That’s OK with you.
    Thousand of illegals are crossing the southern border every week with fake asylum claims who often engage in drug, sex, and child trafficking. They are not vetted because who knows who they really are? They are let go and never show up for their hearings. I have not heard any protests from you or any Democrat.
    Meanwhile, people apply legally and have to wait for years, if they are let in at all. Many such people live in your district. Maybe they should have sneaked in via Mexico. You couldn’t care less.
    Of course, many of these illegals (yes, you don’t like that word; boo-hoo) will eventually become voters: Democrat voters, which is one reason you favor such illegals coming in though you won’t say that outright.
    Yes, Will, we know: You think the immigration system is “broken” (a cliche) and needs “reform” (another cliche).
    No Will, I don’t think you are doing a good job, and therefore
    I don’t trust the new criminal “reforms” you are proposing.

      1. It’s all smoke and mirrors, Will.
        Local police do not ‘turn into immigration officials’ if they turn illegal aliens over to the Feds. Don’t be ridiculous.
        You have been talking to your friends instead of talking to people with some common sense and you have come to believe your own absurdities.
        We know where your heart is: soft on crime.

  3. Listen, collaborate, and go big when you can….. and keep your composure all the while. There is wisdom in these three lessons fr0m five years of hard work. Best of luck as your enter the next five years.

  4. Thanks for communicating your thoughts which included
    your accomplishments as Chair of the Judiciary Committee.
    I am impressed with your ability to work cooperatively with
    others and seek information from others in the course of your
    work.

    I just wish your attitude and positive cooperation could be
    applied at the federal level!

  5. You entail the wisdom of being a conscientious listener. Thank you for all you have done to help make Massachusetts, a state more fair. I wish Capital Hill had more legislators of your ethic.

  6. Will, thank you for these observations. Collaborating and listening are so important, and it’s great to have a representative who goes big on important issues.

  7. Thanks for taking the time to look back at your experience with the Judiciary Committee. Interesting and informative. And…a job well done.

  8. Thank you for summarizing those 5 years so well for us. I just hope that you don’t need to spend 5 years in your Pro Temp position so that you can put all the years of your life experiences and skills to work at the head of the Senate (either one!).

  9. Thanks Will, I hope you will continue to work with all sides and finding a middle ground on most issues is the way to make government work for everyone.
    Although I disagree with you on some issues , I appreciate your hard work and fairness

  10. Senator Brownsberger, Thank you for your Service on the Judiciary Committee, and for outlining your goals & accomplishments, while Chair on the Committee.
    Over the five years, we have been on opposite sides, when it comes to the MA Film Tax Credits, because I truly believe in the merit of retaining the Tax Credits and eliminating the “Sunset Clause.”
    The film entertainment Industry has been good for the economy, provided many jobs and ancillary monetary benefits, to the communities where filming takes place. It certainly has become a growing business, one that draws interest from people and helps to draw tourism.
    Despite our difference of opinion in this matter, I would like to congratulate you, and wish you well in your new position. Massachusetts is fortunate to have you on Board.

  11. Thank you, Will …. specifically for your good work on criminal justice reform. My son Glenn, who suffered from bipolar disorder and substance abuse, spent considerable time in criminal justice system. Your work will help the many other people just like him.
    Thanks for being such a hardworking, committed “public servant.”

  12. Thank you for describing the work you have done over the last five years – I don’t think a lot of folks know the small details- the effort that is needed to accomplish a task – the go big – and attend to collaboration with all involved – we are lucky to have had you lead and win the fight for criminal justice reform and look forward to your next effort !!! Ann

    1. Ann, 1 in 5 people in Federal prisons is an illegal alien.
      https://cis.org/Huennekens/DOJ-26-Federal-Prisoners-Are-Aliens
      Why not ask Will what he thinks about that?
      Ask Will what he thinks should be done on the southern border too.
      We are not exempt, Ann, from having crime committed against us by these illegal aliens.
      Just you and I live in nice communities around Boston and just because we’re nice people does not make us exempt from crime.

  13. 1 in 5 people in prison is an illegal alien:
    https://thehill.com/opinion/immigration/407312-one-in-five-us-prison-inmates-is-a-criminal-alien
    Therefore, many of the criminals that Will wants to be soft on should not even be here. How many crimes have they committed, Will? Tell us. We are all ears. Surely, you have access to the statistics.
    These illegals commit crime against your constituents and many others. This is of no concern to Will, apparently.
    He thinks illegals have a right to be here and commit crime just like any red-blooded American.
    And so what if a Belmont resident is, say, murdered or raped by an illegal? Big deal.
    In the last two days, former Obama DHS officials have agreed that there is a crisis at the border:
    https://ijr.com/obama-dhs-officials-crush-dems-narratives-immigration-border-crisis/
    Will doesn’t care. Ho-hum. Yawn.
    Will, why don’t you run on the “soft on crime” platform next time?

  14. Thank you for your thoughts. I look forward to the implementation of the criminal justice reforms and am interested in seeing the reports from the various task forces and commissions set up, including the Solitary Task Force.

    And I hope we can continue to implement more reforms going forward as we still have more people in custody than necessary. I have heard that part of the problem is a lack of treatment spaces for people to access.

  15. Congratulations on your new role as President Pro Tempore.

    One area where we still need significant change is in the Commonwealth’s Family Law. I enjoyed our brief email discussion of the abuses in the system; and the potential that true data collection could have to shed light on improvements we can make. I encourage and respectfully ask that you take up leadership on this issue. If there is anything I can do to help you in this regard, please let me know.

    Sincerely,
    Andrew Moss

  16. Will- thanks for giving us your thoughts over this important 5 year term. It provides a good window into your ability to get things done in government in a collaborative way. I look forward to continued progress from State Government in your new role.

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