On Tuesday, June 15th, we were thrilled to host 50 attendees for an informative and inspiring panel discussion with criminal legal reform advocates Sean Ellis, Helina Fontes, and Donna Patalano, moderated by Winchester resident Patty Shepard.
Each of the panelists was able to speak from his/her own lived experiences; Sean as a recent exoneree who was wrongly convicted and spent 22 years imprisoned, Helina a mental health professional and mother whose child who went through the criminal justice system, and Donna a prosecutor and works as General Counsel in Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins’s office. All of the panelists agreed that there is an urgent need to bring humanity and healing to the criminal legal system, whether by not criminalizing mental health issues and poverty, addressing trauma in the lives of those who commit crimes, or re-thinking the system so that accountability doesn’t automatically lead to punishment.
Donna Patalano talked about the slow speed of the criminal legal system, pointing out that she started working on Sean Ellis’s case when she was pregnant with her child, who is now a rising junior at Winchester High School. Beginning in 2018, the Suffolk County DA’s Office enacted a policy where they declined to prosecute marginal non-violent cases such as traffic violations, drug use, and minor theft/disorderly conduct. A recent study found that this policy reduced the number of new criminal complaints for those impacted individuals within 2 years by 69% and reduced the number of new felony complaints within 2 years by 75%.
All of the panelists acknowledged that conversations such as Tuesday’s made them feel hopeful about the prospect of change in the criminal legal system, and Sean stressed that “we all have buy-in to those doing time.” Helina said she was heartened that some local communities, such as Lynn, have begun engaging unarmed crisis response teams, rather than police, to help de-escalate tense situations. Donna spoke about the need for elected leaders who are willing and able to earn trust and act boldly to invest in those who are incarcerated and address problems in the system.