Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants presented his third annual address at the Massachusetts Bar Association’s State of the Judiciary event in the John Adams Courthouse last week calling for major initiatives to address issues of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
Data from the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission shows that the racial and ethnic disparity in the rates of imprisonment in Massachusetts is significantly greater than it is nationwide. To learn the reasons for this disparity, the Chief Justice has asked Dean Martha Minow of Harvard Law School to establish an independent research team to examine the issue. Gants also declared that courts are working to address implicit bias in the court system through training of judges and staff, jury instructions, and other measures.
Issues of poverty in the criminal justice system are also being confronted. Gants noted that last term the Court “reaffirmed the legal principle that no defendant should be imprisoned or otherwise punished because he or she is too poor to be able to pay a fine, fee, or an order of restitution…We are examining whether we are unwittingly punishing poverty by the imposition of fines, fees, and restitution that a defendant has no ability to pay.”
Chief Justice Gants reiterated his support for a statewide Housing Court to provide every person equal access to the courts of the Commonwealth. Stating that Housing Court programs are good for both landlords and tenants and make economic sense because of their programs to avoid homelessness and evictions, he said.
“If we care about tenants, if we care about landlords, if we care about homelessness, we must care about Housing Courts,” he commented.
On the civil side, Gants described some of the many new options developed in the trial courts to provide faster and more economical resolution of civil cases. He encouraged the bar to make use of these options, and to discuss them with clients for “a fair, timely and cost-effective resolution of their civil dispute.”
The chief justice expressed optimism about the collaborative effort of the governor, speaker, Senate president and chief justice in working with the Council of State Governments on criminal justice reform. He noted that the group eagerly awaits the final recommendations of the CSG to assist in “shaping criminal justice policy and improving public safety by reducing the rate of recidivism.”
Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey, Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence, and Massachusetts Bar Association President Jeffrey N. Catalano also delivered remarks.