Racial disparities in criminal justice cry out for real change

Governor Baker should use the bully pulpit to rally the Commonwealth for reforms.

Governor Charlie Baker
Governor Charlie BakerAngela Rowlings

The numbers from a study of racial disparities in the Massachusetts criminal justice system are disturbing, but not a surprise.

Behind the numbers, however, are real people, Black and Latino people, many of them serving sentences far longer than their white counterparts. So the question facing leaders in this state is what happens next?

What can police, district attorneys, the courts, and, yes, the governor himself do to set things right at a time when tens of thousands have taken to the streets to demand racial justice and equitable treatment under the law?

The Harvard Law School study, undertaken at the request of Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, has been four years in the making, and researchers readily acknowledge that even the enormous amount of data they had access to was less than they would have wanted. Recalcitrant police departments, an uncooperative Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, and court data systems that are perpetually a work in progress contributed to their frustration.

But still, based on facts they were able to gather, the team found that, between 2014 and 2016, Black people were imprisoned at a rate of 7.9 times that of white people and Latinos at 4.9 times that of white people.


“Black and Latinx defendants tend to face more serious initial charges that are more likely to carry a mandatory or statutory minimum sentence,” the report noted.

Most often those involved drug and weapons charges, “offenses that carry longstanding racialized stigmas,” according to the report.

Even after accounting for criminal histories, court jurisdictions and demographics, the researchers found “Black and Latinx people are still sentenced to 31 and 25 days longer than their similarly situated White counterparts.”

No doubt court officials didn’t order up the report only to have it gather dust. But systemic change — change that demands the attention of police who make the initial arrests and prosecutors who largely determine what charges those defendants will face — demands a coordinated approach.


That kind of approach must come from the top — from a governor whose leadership on criminal justice issues to date has been, well, tepid. He filed a police reform bill that dealt with the basics of a police certification board, but now that a wider-ranging bill is in conference committee, he has been silent on the contentious issue of curtailing qualified immunity for police.

Governor Charlie Baker could use this opportunity to begin to set things right, to lead on this issue, as his former boss and mentor, William Weld, once did when it came to convicted battered women — to use the bully pulpit that his office provides to change not just the conversation, but the culture.

Back in 1991, the Globe did a series of articles on women who became known as the Framingham 8 — each was imprisoned for killing an intimate partner who had also been her batterer. “Battered woman syndrome” was a new and controversial diagnosis at the time, and domestic abuse was rarely prosecuted as a crime.

Weld asked the Advisory Board of Pardons to hear their cases. At least four received commutations from the governor; others got early parole. What followed were changes in Massachusetts law that began to treat domestic violence as an actual crime, which gave women more options and opportunities to get restraining orders, and that woke the public, police, and the courts up to the seriousness of crimes that mostly happened behind closed doors.


A group of battered women and a governor willing to listen and to lead made a difference, and changed the culture.

Governor Baker’s Advisory Board of Pardons has pending before it 326 petitions for pardons or commutations, many of those requests from people of color, people already serving too long.

The board has just recently granted its first hearing on one of those commutations — although it has not yet set a date for that hearing. One out of 326 in six years — and the governor remains silent.

But if he wanted to, the governor has every right to tell the Advisory Board of Pardons to start giving serious consideration to those begging for a hearing — those serving sentences that should have been revisited long ago.

Addressing the kind of racial injustice confirmed by the Harvard Law study means everyone with a hand in creating those inequities has to step up. Leaders need to lead. Baker should be setting the example.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.