At the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast held in Boston, state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz passionately called for the passing of a bill that would provide criminal justice reform, such as no mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses throughout the Commonwealth. Governor Charlie Baker, Mayor Martin Walsh, U.S. Senator Ed Markey, Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, were all in attendance, as Jamaica Plain’s state senator received a standing ovation for her speech.
Below is a transcript of Chang-Diaz’s speech:
Good morning. It has been an intense, worry-filled, but also inspiring year since we were together last.
Last year, I stood at this podium worried about the slow pace of criminal justice reform in our state.
I recounted how year after year, families in my district were losing brothers, mothers, fathers and sons to a vicious cycle of intergenerational harm exacerbated by our criminal justice system.
I recounted how, despite years of activism, State House leaders told these communities again and again to keep waiting for criminal justice reform measures that could save their lives and the souls of their communities.
And I invoked Dr. King’s prediction that “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
Since I was here with you last, though, something wonderful happened—something that Dr. King taught us to do.
In the last year, communities and grassroots advocates rose up, and turned the tides of waiting. They got on the phone with their legislators, showed up at State House hearings, sang at rallies, attended community meetings —and with these actions paved smooth the way for reform.
They told the stories of the unseen victims of both crime and mass incarceration: the mother, the child, the teacher, the future victims of violence who are left behind when we lock people up for indiscriminate years.
Thanks to these persistent efforts, this fall, the Senate and House each passed versions of criminal justice reform that—I’m happy to report—do contain strong reforms, and represent a momentous step on the road to justice. These bills now stand in a conference committee, where—over the coming weeks—a final compromise will get hammered out.
It is not easy to break out of the patterns that have dominated history—including that pattern of asking oppressed people to wait for justice, and I am proud so many of my colleagues rose to meet this moment.
To my own colleagues and leadership in the Senate: I know you heard the voices of advocates and reflected deeply upon the moral choices confronting us in criminal justice policy.
Mr. Speaker, I can see the same is true for you. And I want to say that out loud here, because it’s so important that people know that you’re listening and that their words have impact on us in the State House.
But, my fellow justice-seekers, let me be clear: the work is not done. Real, consequential choices remain before us. How far will we go in the conference bill:
to do away with costly and ineffective mandatory minimums,
to institute implicit-bias and de-escalation training for our law-enforcement professionals, to decriminalize poverty, and to prioritize healing broken communities rather than unrelenting punishment that, in the end, serves only us politicians?
The conference committee that will decide on these questions will release a final bill sometime between next week and July. No one knows what they will do.
That is where you come in, my brothers and sisters in the audience, and at home.
Over the past year we have taken these enormous steps in the legislature…we have gotten this bill to the 10 yard line, because so many people pushed us to.
But, these people, your neighbors, they need reinforcements in this final round.
Last year I invoked Dr. King’s words to call upon Beacon Hill to stop waiting and to pass real reform. This year, I’m using Dr. King’s words make a plea to you:
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable,” Dr. King said, “Every step toward the goal of justice requires…the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” “This is no time for apathy or complacency,” he urged. “This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”
If you care about about ending the cycles of harm in our criminal justice system, have you taken vigorous and positive action to bring that about?
If you have, we need you again.
If you haven’t, Dr. King is talking to you today!
My fellow justice-seekers: be ashamed to come back to this breakfast next year if you haven’t called or emailed someone who works at the State House. Because we need you now. Victory is so close, but we cannot take it for granted.
In our democracy, you hold immense power – which no nine District Attorneys, no hesitating legislators, no dam of injustice can ever withstand for long. Dr. King taught us this, against much longer odds.
Let us march on over these next weeks, with stamina and with focus, until victory is won.
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“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Massachusetts to take a quantum leap or two on some of the things that voters have been telling Beacon Hill for a long time that they want to see us do,” Chang-Díaz said.