Criminal Justice Reform Phone Bank targets federal, local bills

The Mayer Campus Center, where the Criminal Justice Reform Phone Bank was held, is pictured here on April 11, 2017. (Alexis Serino / The Tufts Daily)

At the Criminal Justice Reform Phone Bank yesterday, students made more than 200 calls to state and federal officials regarding criminal justice reform bills up for consideration in the U.S. Senate and the Massachusetts Legislature, according to Max Hornung, a senior and co-organizer of the event. Hornung is also a member of the Tufts University Prison Initiative at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life and serves on the advisory board for the Tufts chapter of the Petey Greene Program, which connects student volunteer tutors to prison inmates.

The phone bank was organized to target two specific criminal justice reform efforts underway, as stated by Hornung. The first was the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017, previously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a bipartisan 16–5 vote. The bill has several components, including incentivizing states to create more re-entry and anti-recidivism programs, lessening and in some cases reducing mandatory minimums, and introducing retroactive sentence shortening for certain drug offenses.

The goal of the calls was to pressure Senate leadership to bring the bill to a vote on the senate floor within a prompt time. Hornung expressed worry that Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would delay the floor vote for an extremely long time in order to kill off momentum for the bill.

“What … [McConnell has] been known to do is when there’s a bill that gets through a committee that he doesn’t love he’ll just wait a long time to schedule it,” Hornung said. “So a big piece of this was trying to push folks to push him to bring the bill to the floor.”

The phone bank also targeted the conference committee formed to reconcile different versions of criminal justice bills passed in the Massachusetts House and State legislatures, according to Hornung. Hornung said the phone bank organizers wanted attendees to focused on lobbying members of the committee to raise the age for trying juveniles as adults from 18 to 19 and to put restrictions on solitary confinement. Hornung said that these issues were picked out because “those are the two issues that are being used as negotiable.”

Hornung criticized the criminal justice system, saying its treatment of young people is unfair.

“We put young people who make a stupid decision into prison,” Hornung said. “They are caught more compared to their middle-class suburban counterparts on account of race, and backwards police practices, and are put into a traumatizing institution.”

Brandon Katz, a senior who attended the phone bank, explained why he was motivated to act on this issue.

“Legislative action on criminal justice reform is desperately needed, and it’s vital that people reach out to their elected officials to push for change,” Katz said.