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ECCO advocates for justice reform

ITEM PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
A crowd applauds at the at the Essex County Community Organization meeting.

By LEAH DEARBORN

LYNN — Criminal justice reform was the topic for several hundred residents of North Shore communities who gathered at St. Stephen’s Church Thursday evening with several of their legislative representatives.

In an event sponsored by the Essex County Community Organization (ECCO), legislators and guest speakers were invited to address the crowd, specifically about support for the Justice Reinvestment Act and bail reform.

State Reps. Brendan Crighton, Daniel Cahill, Paul Tucker, a representative of Tom Walsh’s office and state Sen. Thomas McGee (D-Lynn) attended.

One of the first topics was mandatory sentencing minimums. Rev. Annie Belmer of Zion Baptist Church in Lynn told about her son Elijah, who was incarcerated following a $200 robbery in 1999.  

She said her son’s bail was set too high for the family to pay, and they were pressured with a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. He served seven years in prison as a result.

“By the way, Massachusetts, I want you to know — time served,” said Belmer as she walked off the stage to applause.

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Other speakers advocated raising the felony threshold from $250 to $1,500 and cited the damage caused by the accrual of fees during incarceration.

“A conviction is a lifelong rejection stamp,” said Rev. Sarah Van Gulden from St. Stephen’s, who argued that many young people make mistakes that alter the course of their entire lives.

Speaker Sean Ellis introduced himself as “W59259,” the number he was given while imprisoned on a conviction that was later overturned.

He said funds to pay witnesses following his trial came from the pockets of family members. Ellis referred to others on parole who pay $80 per month to be monitored, but struggle to find employment because of their record.

“We need a system that evaluates,” said speaker Prince Berlin, who was there to advocate for the elimination of pre-trial incarceration. “Our jails should not be modern debt collections facilities.” 

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