Sen. James Eldridge Goes to Washington

Eldridge was recognized as a “Champion of Change” for his work for disaster victims—but here in Massachusetts, he’s championing equally innovative policies.

Photo via James Eldridge

Photo via Sen. James Eldridge

Senator James Eldridge (D-Acton) was the only lawmaker in the U.S. who answered the presidential challenge to be an “Open Government and Civic Hacking” champion of change. Late last week, he and others were recognized at the White House in a day-long event with presenters from all across the country who submitted projects using computer software and publicly available data to solve problems in our states, cities, towns or neighborhoods.

Eldridge proposed the Help4OK project to aid management during times of crisis. Assisted by computer programmers and local “civic hackers,” he proposed an easy-to-use website to connect people who need help with people who can give help. Based off an idea to rally around Oklahoma tornado victims, the website is planned to be a reusable resource to those in need of food, shelter, and medical supplies during natural disasters and other emergencies. “In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and Hurricane Sandy, I am eager to see the outcome of the project and how it can be utilized to help victims during future disasters,” Eldridge said on his blog.

In a phone interview, Eldridge mentioned how he was inspired by the projects he saw in Washington. “After the Mother’s Day homicides in New Orleans,” said Eldridge, “one civic hacker came up with the idea to match clergy and professional mediators with gang leaders and/or known people with criminal justice history”—all who voluntarily submitted their names. This could be groundbreaking for the city. Eldridge pointed out that if an act of violence happened or was about to happen, a community activist could then immediately be on hand to de-escalate the situation.

For his part, Eldridge has come up with some excellent ideas to decrease violence, arrest and imprisonment, too, all dependent on legislators passing some leading-edge criminal justice bills filed earlier this year. They hit on lessening solitary confinement, expunging the records of the falsely accused, and establishing a commission to examine correction officer and prisoner suicides.

One of the most forward-looking bills, of which Eldridge is lead sponsor, is the Restorative Justice Bill, now before the Joint Committee of Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities. Restorative Justice, which, according to a Concord-based Communities for Restorative Justice (C4rj), has historically been a way for healing to occur “after victims and perpetrators collectively identify and address harms, needs and obligations.” The impact has been studied around the world, and C4rj points to national stats that indicate those participating in restorative justice programs return to crime 18 percent of the time compared to a similar group in traditional criminal justice interventions at 27 percent.

“Sadly in Massachusetts, we are behind a little, and we should be a leader,” Eldridge said. Maybe what Massachusetts needs is a bit more civic hacking.