We call ourselves the Actual Justice Task Team.
We began as the Innocence Commission Task Team. Having been scandalized by first degree murder convictions of two African American men who appeared to us to be clearly innocent, the late Rev. Fred Anderson and I, with permission from the Historic Massachusetts Conference UCC Board of Directors, put together a task team committed to form an advisory commission to the legislature. The Innocence Commission would recommend the passage of legislation that would make it less likely that innocent people would be convicted.
Representative Ben Swan of Springfield introduced our legislation, as did, later, Representative Paul Heroux of Attleboro. It was there for three sessions of the legislature. We met monthly, we spoke at the mandatory hearings of the legislature, we conducted Super Saturday workshops, we had tables at many Conference gatherings, we spoke at criminal justice meetings, we spoke at a labor-legislative meeting, and reached out to whoever would listen. Finally, our friend Senator William Brownsberger of Belmont said, convincingly, in his opinion such a commission would be taken over by forces that didn’t want progress. And so we are now the Actual Justice Task Team.
What is our present mission?
Many are familiar with Amos 5:24, quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream”. But what is biblical justice? An example can be found in Jeremiah 22:16-17, in which the prophet berates King Jehoiakim of Judah, comparing him to his father Josiah: “He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is this not to know me? says the Lord. But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood and for practicing oppression and violence.”
We are confronted with a choice here. Is justice to support the poor in their needs, like Josiah, or to practice oppression and violence on the innocent? As Christians, we don’t have to be told the answer. Unfortunately, we on the Actual Justice Task Team believe that with 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s inmates, we are too much like Jehoiakim and too little like Josiah, albeit America's violence is not so much physical as the psychological and spiritual pain of separation from society.
So we, as Christians, support actual justice, the justice of our faith, as a corrective for the justice practiced by our country and by our states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
We have recently provided Zoom workshops for Super Saturdays dealing with the issues of life without parole and solitary confinement.
As our Actual Justice Task Team originated in the historic Massachusetts Conference, we are now reaching out, with some success, to the Connecticut and Rhode Island historic conferences. This includes legislation to allow primary caregivers with a jail or prison sentence a house arrest or other arrangement, so that their children will be cared for.
Actual Justice Team Report
The work of our task team is focused on the Massachusetts legislature’s work on criminal justice. Our goal involves releasing people back into the community, preventing their entry into jail or prison, and where appropriate, creating a fairer and more rehabilitative incarceration environment. Our team works with many other advocacy organizations, primarily secular. Some of us belong also to those groups. Making changes in Massachusetts law is not for the faint of heart, and teamwork is essential.
Massachusetts criminal justice work is in response to the mass incarceration of the 1980’s and 1990’s. The words “Racial Justice” need to be uttered only once in our report, because racial injustice is what it’s all about. We are coming out of a situation where the United States, with 5% of the world’s population, has had 25% of the world’s prisoners, placing us off the charts in percentage of residents being locked up. There are two possible causes of that situation. Either our country has the worst people, or the worst laws. I go for the latter, as I hope we all do. Locking up black people especially was the practice of the above ugly decades, so much so that every third African-American male in his twenties experienced incarceration. I commend to you Michelle Alexander’s bestseller, “The New Jim Crow” to learn more.
I urge you to read about some of our recent major issues in our papers written by my fellow task team members. They include ending life without opportunity for parole by Nat Harrison; new ways to look at the issue of women in prison by Louellyn Lambros; juvenile justice work of the Congregational Church, UCC, of South Andover by Meredith Moody; and the philosophy and theology of restorative justice by Brenda Nolan.
In addition to these efforts, the Actual Justice Task Team has been involved in the issue of segregated confinement, concerned about the mental health of inmates in those situations. We have pushed against the practice of incredibly expensive inmate phone calls, causing great hardship for family members in the free world. We believe those calls are necessary to preserve the family connection which is key to a person’s rehabilitation and success back in the free world.
It is not always known, even to inmates and returning citizens, that the only adult US citizens prohibited from voting in Massachusetts are those with felonies AND are currently serving time. Those in jails awaiting trial or sentenced to misdemeanors are eligible to vote. We have supported efforts to make voting readily available to them.
A bill to make scientific practices of eyewitness identification interviews has been held up for years in the legislature. 75% of those convicted of a serious crime and later found to be innocent had faulty eyewitness identification in their trial. To their credit, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts would like to have such a law, as it would facilitate their work in determining innocence or guilt in their appeals work. Unfortunately, the bill has not been supported by the legislature.
We have been concerned that while women with addictions are being treated in appropriate medical facilities, men are sometimes held in jails. We believe jails for non-incarcerable offenses is inappropriate.
Because Massachusetts is locked in battle with Louisiana for the honor of highest percent in the nation of prison inmates serving life without parole (Yes), our prisons have become part nursing homes. Getting medical release for some in this condition has been partially successful. We have also been successful in removing many from incarceration during the covid epidemic in our prisons. And Governor Baker is to be commended for commuting the sentences of two inmates; he is the first governor to do that since 1997.
These have been our successes in this legislative session. The others will be pursued, as appropriate, in the new session beginning next year.
And we will again gear up to support the above efforts as well as possibly new ones. We will again be calling our own state senator and representative to support bills, attending and speaking at hearings of the joint judiciary and other committees in the state house to lend our support, email the committee chairs and co-chairs, call the governor, write letters to the editor, urge legislators to sponsor bills, and, as we did with the life without parole issue, write legislation ourselves and then find legislative sponsors.
As you can hear, except for Louellyn Lambros’s mention of work with keeping sole caretakers out of prison, little has been done with Connecticut and Rhode Island. We understand that one of our churches has done some work with Danbury prison, and there are probably other works in criminal justice we are unaware of. To those in these states, as well as others in Massachusetts, who can tolerate frustration, and believe in the fundamental goodness of all people, we urge you to join our Actual Justice Task Team.
Now please hear four of our team members discuss issues of their primary concern.
Rev. Jonathan Tetherly, Chair, Actual Justice Task Team
By some time in February 2022, quite likely as early as February 2nd, the expectation is that all of these bills will either be recommended for passage, or “referred for further study”, which means they’re voted down in this session of the legislature. If you would like to see these bills passed, tell your state senator and state representative about it. If you need to be sure who they are, visit the mass.gov/legislature site where you can put in your address and their names will appear. And if you go on the site to “Joint Committees”, find the joint committee you are interested in, as indicated above (i.e., Joint Committee on the judiciary is the most popular) and discover which legislators serve on that committee. If one of them is your senator or representative, you can be especially influential in getting the legislation a favorable recommendation.
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