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UPDATED, Sept. 20: If you’ve ever seen a problem and said, “Somebody should really do something about this,” you can be that somebody — if you join with others.

That was the take-home message from the “Making Government Work for You” workshop on Monday evening sponsored by the Mass Incarceration Working Group of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington.

Over several years the group has focused its series of public forums on reforming the state’s criminal-justice system, but the workshop held Monday, Sept. 18, was designed to help anyone learn how to become an effective advocate on any issue.

Nearly 100 people filled the church’s vestry room to learn some of the finer points of changing laws and public policies from featured speakers Colleen Kirby, criminal-justice legislative specialist for the nonpartisan Massachusetts League of Women Voters, and the 4th Middlesex (MA) District’s newly elected state senator, Cindy Friedman.

Overview of justice reform

Lori Kenschaft, coordinator of the church’s ongoing mass-incarceration project, began with an overview of why the criminal-justice system needs reform. Although Massachusetts imprisons a far lower percentage of arrested people than other U.S. states, it still does a far poorer job of keeping people out of jail than do many European countries.

The psychological and financial tolls that jail time takes on those arrested for a crime — whether convicted or not — is enormous. Imprisonment affects an arrested person’s ability to obtain a job, housing and education (in denial of loans) and deprives children of a parent engaged in their daily life. This too often compounds poverty and other disadvantages that lead those children down unfortunate paths, often to prison themselves, she said.

State legislators are crafting two criminal-justice reform bills. The House of Representatives’ bill is somewhat narrowly focused on issues to prevent recidivism — mainly with in-prison programs — while the Senate’s bill is much broader (details below).

Kenschaft and other speakers asked the audience to contact friends around the state, asking them to immediately call state Rep. Claire Cronin (617-722-2396), who oversees decisions about the House bill, to request a more-comprehensive legislation.

Kirby suggests steps

Kirby told a story of how one man’s outrage at seeing birds hunted in a public area prompted his advocacy and eventual success in protecting the birds. The story was an example of steps to take to change policies:

1. Identify the problem and its parts.

2. Join a group, even a small one, to explain the problem to others.

3. Learn about the issue (any research studies, what’s been tried and has failed, whether legislative action is needed), and identify the end result desired.

4. Develop relationships with all interested parties.

5. Form coalitions to more broadly inform others in workshops and forums and via their networks.

6. Be prepared for unexpected changes (e.g., a natural disaster) to public and political priorities.

7. Show public support (through protests, press visibility), so politicians have to respond and act.

Kirby then provided an overview of the usual, complex two-year process by which bills may become laws in Massachusetts, but noted “it’s not working that way this year.” Because 5,000 to 6,000 bills may be filed by the end of January at the beginning of the process, it’s impossible for all legislators to learn about all of them.

In the current cycle, the state Legislature has instead grouped some of the bills to take a more systematic approach to addressing various aspects of interacting issues. Kirby stressed that the best way for advocates to lobby for an issue is to become a resource for your own legislator, educating and informing her or him through your testimony at hearings and in phone calls or personal appointments.

Forming coalitions broadens statewide support for your issue, because people in other legislative districts will know what to say about it to their own legislators.

Friedman lists her key issues

Senator Friedman spoke about a few of the issues she’s most passionate about, saying “It’s like being asked to choose your ‘favorite’ child — you just can’t do it!” But high on her list are the following:

-- Preserving affordable health care, and insisting on access and parity for treatment of mental illness;

-- Passing the Fair Share Amendment, to increase taxes on those earning $1 million or more, with revenue that could be dedicated to education and infrastructure improvements;

-- Mental health, the opioid crisis and criminal justice — overlapping issues from which many families are suffering;

-- Increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and over eight years, phasing out the $3.75 per hour minimum pay for tipped workers. (Sen. Friedman and Rep. Daniel Donahue of Worcester were to represent a coalition of legislators — including Arlington’s Rep. Sean Garballey — advocating for S.1004 and H.2365 at a hearing at the State House on Tuesday, Sept. 19; she encouraged audience members to attend, and several did. Read about her testimony);

-- Bail reform; and

-- Paid family medical leave.

Touts Senate version

Returning to criminal-justice reforms, Friedman applauded the House bill’s antirecidivism measures but explained why the Senate’s more-comprehensive omnibus, or “package,” bill would do even more good. It would:

allow for civil violations (rather than criminal charges) for some arrested for possession of drugs;

reform the bail process (so that release from jail would be done in the least restrictive manner while protecting public safety and accounting for flight risk);

eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing — which would enable judges to use guidelines and discretion, to decide appropriate sentences case by case. District attorneys favor mandatory minimums as a way to leverage information from low-level drug dealers about their higher-level (cartel) suppliers, but this has rarely, if ever, worked. Judges would still be able to remove truly “bad guys” from the streets while taking other factors (e.g., parenthood, mental illness) into account for low-level offenders;

limit the use of solitary confinement;

permit medical releases for prisoners needing end-of-life care;

allow more-flexible rules about fines and fees, so the indigent can actually pay for penalties but avoid additional financial harm; and

for juvenile justice, raise the age for “adult” crime.

Friedman's personal tips

Friedman then outlined her “personal tips” for how to work effectively with legislators. Phone calls are more effective than e-mails or letters, and calling your own legislators with a clear message very important. Little time exists for legislators to talk with other people who are not their constituents. To reach a legislator from another district, form coalitions, so that constituents from that district can accompany you to lobby their legislator.

Sen. Friedman is always happy to meet with constituents in person. For the most efficient and effective meeting with any legislator, preparation is key: know what a specific bill does or does not do; know whether you’re speaking to a representative or senator; talk with your own representative, unless you are in a coalition to accompany someone from another legislator’s district; know your legislator’s existing position on the issue; know what he opposition is saying and provide the language to answer the opposition; ask for a specific action or outcome; and ask how you can support him or her to advocate for it. Share why you, personally, care about this issue. Be very kind and courteous to the staff -- they are very knowledgeable and will present your ideas fairly to the legislator.

Building coalitions to get lots of people to call or show up for a meeting or hearing will extend your voice to areas in the state where support may not be so strong. But, she cautioned, working in coalitions is “really hard — not everyone will be able to get all they want, all at once. Be ready to compromise.”

In concluding, she recommended patience with our highly effective but imperfect democratic process: “Progress is slow by design. Imagine if all 5,000 bills were enacted one after another like this,” she continued, snapping her fingers. “There would be chaos.”

Q & A's

Questions and answers followed the presentations:

Need information about bills? Search here >> Clearly written summaries are also available through the Massachusetts League of Women Voters.

Our own legislators are often on “the right side,” so how to best reach others who need persuading, without contributing to poisonous partisanship? Such coalitions as the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization and the UU Mass Action Network are good resources and have built effective working groups. Advocates should also remember the governor’s office — his reach extends to the whole state.

For effective lobbying during a meeting? Ask what the legislator will do — write a letter? testify? Ask “How can we help you fight for this bill?”

What about the state budget’s “unfunded mandates”? Coalitions must identify the real costs when speaking with legislators. Don’t say “We can do it for a little less.” Be honest! Legislators can advocate for funds in budget negotiations most effectively when you’ve informed them about the true costs of effective programs and services.

For additional information

Make Your Voice Matter with Lawmakers: No Experience Necessary, by Miriam Stein of Arlington.

“The Citizen Lobbyist — M aking Your Voice Heard: How to Influence Government Decisions,” by the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts

“How Laws Are Made in Massachusetts,” UU Mass Action

This news announcement was published Monday, Aug. 21, 2017, and it was updated as a news summary Sept. 20.