AYER -- Susan Tordella has spent a good amount of time volunteering in prison.

But when she read Michelle Alexander's book about mass incarceration, she said, she became an activist.

Now, with some Statehouse help, Tordella and a group of local residents are pushing for an end to mass incarceration in the state.

Tordella, a member of the Unitarian group Ending Mass Incarceration Together, is part of a larger push on Beacon Hill to reduce incarceration levels, change mandatory minimum sentencing and fix pre-trial practices.

The problem, she explained, is a racially charged war on drugs that began in the 1970s, when Richard Nixon wanted to lure white Southern Democrats to the Republican party.

"They couldn't say, 'come to us, we'll be tough on black people,'" she said, so they started a war on crime and drugs.

"Reagan perpetuated it by embellishing the story of crack mothers and crack babies, and hiring a PR firm to actually blast those across the media so it made it seem like a huge problem," she said.

The war was used as an excuse to target, arrest, try and convict poor people and minorities, she explained.

"If you're poor, black or brown, you're most likely to suffer the penalties from it," she said.

On a recent Wednesday, EMIT members distributed Alexander's book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," to every legislator at the Statehouse.


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Former Ayer selectman Carolyn McCreary led the drive to raise $2,300 to purchase all 200 books.

"The book is incredible in talking about how the system is not working, how dysfunctional it is in so many ways," she said.

McCreary said she hopes the book will open lawmakers' eyes and help change the laws so that the system doesn't discriminate against poor people.

"It's because of the 'war on drugs' that so many people are incarcerated, and they haven't really committed a crime that hurts anybody," she said.

The group has received backing from state Sen. Jamie Eldridge, who formed the drug law reform caucus with Rep. Tom Sannicandro, of Ashland, last year.

Eldridge is working on a number of reforms, including repealing all minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes.

"There's just a countless number of sad stories where someone who, whether or not they were involved with possessing drugs or dealing drugs, they're in jail for 10, 15, 20 years," he said. "And yet largely their problem is that they're addicted to drugs."

The caucus is also working on pre-trial detainment reform. People without financial means who are accused of a crime can sit in jail for up to a year because they can't afford to pay bail, Eldridge explained.

While in jail, they have no access to job training or substance-abuse programs, he said.

"I think that creates a lot of damage to those individuals who are often just being held in jail because they can't afford the bail, unlike the middle class or the more well-off," he said.

Eldridge is also trying to expand a restorative justice program that Ayer has already adopted

The program spares perpetrators of minor crimes, often young people, from a mark on their record. Instead of being thrown into the court system, offenders face their victims in a circle, where they listen to the impact of their actions and can agree to some sort of deal.

Ayer Police Chief William Murray said the program has worked very well and is actually quite useful.

"It keeps the suspect, who is usually juvenile, out of the court system, but it gives them some ownership of their actions," Murray said.

Eldridge is sponsoring a bill to expand the program statewide so that any district attorney or police department has the option to refer offenders to the program.

"We're working hard to convince the Senate Ways and Means Committee that it's a very smart, common-sense bill," he said.

The other factor in the whole reform movement is money. One 2013 Mass Inc. report found that Massachusetts could save up to $150 million every year if it reduced recidivism by five percent.

Eldridge noted that right now, prisons carry the third most expensive price tag for state government, just behind health care and education. 

"That could be money used to invest in education or prevention or health care in ways that I think would be much more productive for society," he said.

EMIT members have also rallied on the Boston Common with Eldridge to advocate for "jobs not jails," arguing that money used to build prisons should instead go toward other needed state expenses.

The group sponsored five briefings at the Statehouse, and helped the group Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement get hundreds of signatures for a petition calling for jobs, not jails.

"It's about education and offering other alternatives and working together," Tordella said. "Our effort is a statewide effort."

Follow Amelia on Twitter and Tout @AmeliaPakHarvey.