The New Jim Crow

Last week, at Belmont’s recognition of Martin Luther King day, I gave the statement below:

As Senate Chair of the state legislature’s Judiciary Committee, it is my top personal priority to lighten the footprint of the criminal justice system on communities of color.

The recent street policing incidents have provoked such a passionate response because they are part of the much larger problem of what has been called “The New Jim Crow” – the mass incarceration of people of color across the country.

Even in Massachusetts, where I believe that most police leaders take an enlightened approach to community policing — certainly, our own police chief and District Attorney Ryan do — the New Jim Crow is a real problem. The New Jim Crow is the result of a set of legislative policies which have hugely disparate impact on people of color. In the name of protecting people from drugs, guns and predators, we have created a draconian sentencing system which leads to overcrowding in our prisons. Prisons cannot rehabilitate people who are jammed together in dangerous conditions. Probation and parole officers cannot help people find jobs and readjust when their efforts are spread out across too many offenders. We simply need to dial back our sentencing policies.

This group of issues has been central to my thinking for two decades and finally I am in a good position to help lead on them. If reappointed as Judiciary Chair [later in the week, I was reappointed], I will be conducting a series of hearings across the state. We will focus especially in communities of color and work with community leaders to assure that the hearings are inclusive. Our goal will be to build a consensus around a set of reforms which will respond very directly to the concerns raised in the conversation today.

Many of my colleagues feel as I do and I am hopeful that the stars may be aligned in this session to achieve real change.

There is a need for change all in all components of the criminal justice system. Over the past few months, I have worked with my colleagues to assure that bills have been filed that cover a wide range of issues under the general rubric of dialing back our punitive policies. I look forward to working over the months to come to build an inclusive conversation that leads to constructive change.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

24 replies on “The New Jim Crow”

  1. Will, I’m so encouraged by this. Thank you for spearheading the effort of prison reform. It is long overdue, and I know that you’re the right person for the job.

    My late husband , who worked on prison education from Curry College, would have been pleased.

  2. Will – I can think of no one more qualified to tackle this.

    Draconian sentencing and “three strike” laws largely sublimate the rules of common sense. Let Judges do what they are paid to do and protect the community in such a way that is fair, just and benefits and protects the community (and potentially helps people find a way out of crime) without the shackles of formulaic sentencing.

  3. Thank you profoundly for your initiatives on this topic vital to justice in the Commonwealth. A forum on the various legislative options is being planned by several faith communities working together, at the UU church in Arlington. I will share this information when I have details.
    I am very impressed by your grasp of the subject matter.

  4. Thank you so much, Senator Brownsberger, for your wise leadership on this issue. I remember speaking with you about it when you were our rep in Cambridge. Thanks for including me with this news.

  5. Senator Brownsberger, I’ve always been grateful to you for your enlightened positions on criminal justice problems in black communities. You are among the few who see how strategies of racial oppression and destruction are structurally imbedded in America’s legal, institutional and cultural systems.

    I ask you to join those of us who see the charter school movement, with its militaristic disciplinary regimes, self-esteem-depressing ejection of well over half of the charter applicants and lottery winners before graduation (especially boys ( and re-segregation of public schools, as yet another stratagem for oppressing poor black people, yet another funnel into the school-to-prison pipeline. We mustn’t be seduced by the “choice” mantra of charter promoters; in charters, it is not the students who are getting to choose their schools, but the schools that are getting to choose their students. And even the “chosen” students are getting a test-prep education under conditions of behavioral constraint, not an education that frees their curiosity, fuels their creativity, and empowers them to be independent and self-directed thinkers and actors

    See ““What we’ve found with the ‘whatever it takes’ or ‘no excuses’ mentality is that it was very teacher-driven and less student-driven,” says Kametz, acknowledging this is a controversial line of thought in his own halls. A typical No Excuses approach might involve giving demerits or detention for missed assignments or turning in work that’s not “neat and complete.” Kamentz questions whether this tough-love approach helps create the self-advocacy in students they will need to be successful in college. “It’s the largest gaping hole with our kids in college,” he says. “They will constantly say, ‘You structured my life so much that I had to do very little thinking and structuring myself.’ ”

  6. I appreciate your statements on this matter. Certainly you have read Michelle Alexander’s book by the same name. Few can avoid being moved by her persuasive facts and analysis.

    The question is what will be compromised in the legislative process. Thinking people understand the need for wholesale transformation of the criminal justice and prison system, from the unfairness of arrests and shakedowns, oppressive bail, unreviewed prosecutorial discretion, biased and mandatory minimum sentencing, to horrendous, demeaning and dangerous prison conditions without hope of rehabilitation or redemption. Add onto that restrictive parole and probation conditions, CORI abuse, loss of civil rights (like voting), and difficulty finding work, housing and other services. What we have is a system that SUPPORTS AND ENCOURAGES CRIME and recidivism that puts every citizen’s life and well being at risk.

    The trick will be reasoning with and resisting calls for more toughness on crime and criminals, and the fear that suffuses it all.

    I hope you will stand firm and do something incredibly constructive this term.

  7. Interesting to see how this issue is playing out across the country. When I worked at YouthBuild in Massachusetts, I met some nice, decent kids who ended up with discouraging criminal records just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And yes, many of them were minority youths. I remember thinking, if this kid had been white and in a different environment, and events had played out much the same way, there is a greater chance the situation would have been resolved without an arrest / conviction. It’s sad, because from the sample of the population I worked with, I know this happens more often than most people realize; often to minorities, but sometimes to underprivileged white kids as well. A life here and there gets majorly disrupted to an end that doesn’t fit the crime at hand, and no one hears about it. Many of these individuals are resigned to believing this kind of treatment is just an ordinary part of life for themselves and the people closest to them, and the frequency of mis-justice doesn’t determine whether or not the issue receives public attention. Just a few incidents can trigger a national outcry, but just as easily, many incidents can occur and go largely unnoticed.

    It’s not simply the police doing wrong. The police are sometimes overwhelmed because there aren’t programs in place to keep kids out of the street corner spotlight. Only strong leaders, mentors, educators, and community based organizations can turn the tides. Police reform is part the issue, but so is the need to better serve these kids; to establish positive systems that will enable youth to believe they have the power to determine their own destiny.

    1. Yes. These are very valid perceptions. I had the same perceptions when I worked with youth as a defense attorney — lot’s of basically decent kids stuck on a bad path.

      As a general statement, I wouldn’t put the problem on the police. It’s about the whole environment broadly and about the whole response we make when people get in trouble from arrest to incarceration to release and community re-entry.

  8. If much of the glut in prisons is due to minor drug infractions I would
    suggest that we review our drug policies to tilt more toward rehabilitation than criminalization.

    Also of concern is the fact that prisons are run FOR PROFIT by private companies, which means that
    they strive to FILL them with as
    many inmates as possible.
    This is horribly peverse.

    1. Fortunately, we have no for-profit or private prisons in Massachusetts, although they are a real problem elsewhere.

      I agree we need to change our drug sentencing policies, but it’s broader than that. While inmates convicted of drug offenses are half of the federal population, they are more like a quarter of state and local inmates.

  9. Thank you for sending this information. It is great to hear that you are working hard on these issues.

  10. addressing the problems of policing, sentencing and incarceration of POC, and the devastating effects on communities, families and the individuals themselves is of unmost importance, in boston, Massachusetts and nationally.

  11. You hit the issue squarely and on point. I so worry the right wing has achieved a way to take a giant step backwards.

    I appreciate your updates.

  12. Good for you, Will. I work with the NAACP and with City Councillor Tito Jackson on the issues affecting Black and Latino men and boys. The criminal justice system is a very big issue. If I can help in any way, let me know.

  13. Thank you Will for your leadership. I remember well working to defeat the 3 strikes bill together. I’m sure that Unitarian Universalists would be eager to help turn people out to these hearings. Thank you!

  14. I’m reading “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, and this book should be required reading for all of us. Ms. Alexander’s book provides an important perspective on this issue. Thanks for working toward these much-needed changes in our unfair judicial system.

  15. Thank you for your concern about this issue.

    For people who are concerned about the massive and discriminatory incarceration in the US, there is some excellent information in Michael Ames’s article, “Captive Market” in the Feb issue of Harper’s Magazine

    Our incarceration policy is linked to the privatization of prisons.

    1. This is a problem in other states. Fortunately, no private prisons in Massachusetts. We do have some non-profits involved in the provision of services like treatment to people in prison and on probation.

  16. I am heartened by these remarks and glad you have been appointed as Judiciary Chair! Whatever reforms need to be made, they will be better served if our budget problems also get solved realistically. Thanks for your thoughts on both of these issues.

  17. bravo. glad you have the vision and the capacity to push for this much needed change

  18. Hi Will,
    Many of the issues you must grapple with as our senator are very difficult indeed, however your blogs are extremely helpful. I am always impressed by the thoughtful manner in which you distill the issues and present your recommendations. Thank-you for all the work you do!

  19. Just would like to have more presence on mass car with the panhandlers pissing in public breaking store windows going on stores soliciting customers for food and money that needs to stop it makes no semen to keep call the police and ten minutes later these folks are back doing the same thing

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