In the fall of 2020, the release of Racial Disparities in the Massachusetts Criminal System  (“the Report”) marked a potentially important turning point in efforts to address long-standing racial inequities in the Commonwealth’s court system. This is not because the Report, commissioned by the late Chief Justice Gants and produced by researchers from Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program, revealed what system and non-system actors did not already suspect. Few, it seems, were surprised by the Report’s troubling key findings about substantial bias-driven disparities in criminal caseloads, dispositions, sentencing, and incarceration.  Instead, having suspicions confirmed by rigorous empirical research conducted by respected scholars at a premiere institution provided an opening for a conversation long in the making, both about the extent, nature, and source of racial disparities, but also about how data quality and quantity have stymied efforts to better understand the scope and sources of the Commonwealth’s problems. 

Building on the momentum of the report, in June of 2021 the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management kicked off the Roundtable on Racial Disparities in Massachusetts Criminal Courts. Founded in 1980, the PCJ has sought from the beginning to promote sound policy and effective management in the administration of safety and justice. We do this in part through Executive Sessions, convenings in which leading practitioners, policymakers, and academics engage in high-level, creative dialogue and problem-solving about seemingly intractable problems. Through its Executive Sessions, PCJ has informed national debates, shaped public policy, and given birth to big ideas on a broad range of topics and issues, including policing and public safety, juvenile justice, youth violence and homicide, human rights, and community corrections.

The Roundtable is a Massachusetts-specific version of the Executive Session, and through it we have the potential to significantly reduce racial disparities in court outcomes and the criminal legal system generally.

Goals and Objectives of the Roundtable

The overall goal of the Roundtable is to profoundly influence future policies, practices, and procedures in Massachusetts that will help to eradicate sources of racial inequities and resulting disparities in the courts. Toward this end, the Roundtable has four primary objectives:

  1. To deepen participants’ understanding about the extent and nature of racial disparities in the Massachusetts courts, including gaining a deeper understanding of the mechanisms (policies, procedures, practices) through which these ethnoracial disparities are created and maintained, with attention to race-neutral policies and laws, racial bias, inequitable resource allocation decisions, and criminal legal system policies that exacerbate social class inequalities;
  2. To engage in cross-agency collaboration to identify potential remedies to reduce barriers without causing unintended harm in other ways, and to use the list of potential remedies to develop a set of recommendations for reforms in policy, procedure, and practice for broad dissemination;
  3. To develop strategies for dissemination of ideas about the nature of the problem and recommendations for resolving them, with the intention to increase public awareness and understanding as well as civic engagement around these issues and potential solutions for the Commonwealth; and
  4. To develop strategies for action to increase the likelihood that Roundtable recommendations are seriously considered and implemented. This will position Massachusetts to be a leader and to share new and potentially innovative ideas with others around the country.

Roundtable Membership

The Roundtable is hosted by Sandra Susan Smith, Faculty Chair of the Program in Criminal Justice, the Daniel & Florence Guggenheim Professor Criminal Justice at HKS, and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute. Joining Professor Smith are 27 leaders across the Commonwealth, including four community organizers with lived experience, four social/racial justice organizers, four academics/researchers, three policymakers, six criminal legal system agency heads, and six judges. Each member of the Roundtable has been invited based on their evidenced commitment to racial justice, reputation for leadership, a deep understanding of the system and/or impacted communities, and a capacity for creative thought and civil engagement. 

Between 2021 and 2023, Roundtable participants are meeting quarterly to engage in sustained conversations of policy-relevance on racial disparities in court outcomes and to consider the implications of recent research findings for local and statewide policy and practice. Each convening is intended as an opportunity to learn about relevant research, to discuss the implications of research for local and statewide policies and practices, to engage in out-of-the-box thinking about potential reforms, and to devise recommendations for policies, procedures, and practices for dissemination to the broader public. 

Working Groups and Current Progress

During the first Roundtable meeting in June of 2021, eight clear areas of focus emerged. We organized a working group around each that would lay the groundwork for achieving the Roundtable’s primary objectives. Below is a list of each working group with links to more information.  


Inequitable and Undemocratic: A Research Brief on Jury Exclusion in Massachusetts and a Multipronged Approach to Dismantle It. Roundtable on Racial Disparities in Massachusetts Criminal Courts Research Brief, June 2023.

Reducing Racial Disparities through Decriminalization in Massachusetts: What Seems to Work and What Makes Matters Worse. Roundtable on Racial Disparities in Massachusetts Criminal Courts Policy Brief, March 2022.