Is criminal justice reform misfiring?

This is the era of criminal justice reform. States across the country are reexamining criminal justice policies with an eye toward addressing the ignoble distinction the US holds of claiming astronomical incarceration rates far out of line with those in other developed countries. We even make repressive regimes like Russia and Cuba look like softies by comparison.

With the US home to only 5 percent of the world’s population but almost a quarter of all its prisoners, both the left and the right have seized on the issue in recent years. The left claims justice has run off the rails under our increasingly sanction-driven system, while conservatives have said the overreliance on incarceration runs against the grain of the philosophy of limited government and is a costly budget buster.

But the gathering consensus that we must make changes to criminal justice policy may be bringing everyone together to focus on the wrong solution. That’s the conclusion of Fordham Law School professor John Pfaff. He argued in a recent essay in the Wall Street Journal that the focus of reform advocates on non-violent offenders and mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes is missing the fact that the bulk of the increase in incarceration in the US over the last several decades is attributable to the jailing of those convicted of violent crimes.

He says just 16 percent of the 1.3 million people in state prisons (where the vast majority of inmates are held) are there on drug offenses, while more than half were convicted of violent crimes. If we released everyone in state and federal prison serving a drug sentence, he writes, the US would still have 1.25 million people behind bars, an incarceration rate four times higher than in 1970.

“If we are serious about ending mass incarceration in the US,” writes Pfaff, “we will have to figure out how to lock up fewer people who have committed violent acts and to incarcerate those we do imprison for less time.”

in yesterday’s Globe Ideas section, Pfaff tells reporter David Scharfenberg that it’s understandable that reform efforts initially focused on the politically safer territory of nonviolent drug offenses. But he says we have to be willing to move beyond that, to the more uncomfortable question of reducing sanctions for violent offenses, if we are serious about reducing the country’s extraordinarily high prison population.

It’s important grist for the mill as Massachusetts lawmakers prepare to consider major criminal justice reform legislation this session. The reform deliberations have been guided by a review of criminal justice policies led by the Council of State Governments, which has aided several dozen states in revamping criminal justice laws. Advocates have already expressed concern that reforms might be too focused on probation and parole services after sentences are served and not on changing sentencing practices themselves. Even those criticisms, however, have largely followed the cautious path of arguing for elimination of mandatory minimum drug sentences for nonviolent offenders.

Few are raising questions about cases like the one spotlighted last fall in CommonWealth involving an 18-year-old Dorchester youth who faced a mandatory 18 month sentence when he was caught carrying a loaded handgun. Tim McManus, who had no prior convictions, was on pretrial probation for 18 months before his case was heard. During that time he finished high school, started a job training program, and complied with a strict curfew while wearing a GPS monitoring device. But none of that was able to mitigate his sentence once prosecutors decided against reducing the charge based on his pretrial conduct. Serving time in jail, research shows, increases the odds he will end up back there.

MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth, has called for comprehensive reform, including of sentences for violent crimes.

Sen. William Brownsberger, cochairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, has acknowledged the outsize impact of convictions for violent crimes on incarceration rates. Brownsberger told CommonWealth last fall that said he’d favor examining all mandatory minimum sentences in the upcoming legislative review. But it’s not clear he’ll get much support for such an effort.

As Scharfenberg points out, even former president Barack Obama, despite saying it’s time to address the issue of mass incarceration, faltered when it came to the nitty-gritty of what it would take to put a real dent in incarceration rates and sounded the same refrain as others about focusing on nonviolent drug offenders.

–MICHAEL JONAS


BEACON HILL

Michael Widmer, the former head of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, slams as misguided the Baker administration’s proposal for a stiff tax on employers who don’t offer a high enough level of health insurance coverage. (CommonWealth)

The hurried pay raise bill not only boosted the salaries and power of the House speaker and Senate president to reward — or punish — loyalists, it also includes beefy increases for members of the GOP, which might explain their muted opposition. (CommonWealth)

Homeless families, squeezed by changes in the state’s regulations on housing assistance, are increasingly turning to hospital emergency rooms for shelter. (WGBH)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Watch out for street closures in downtown Boston on Tuesday and the possibility of crowds at a parade suddenly announced late Sunday night to celebrate a local sports team victory. (Boston Globe)

Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt wants a citywide referendum to ban retail marijuana, a vote that could have a good chance in the city which rejected the statewide ballot question to legalize pot in November. (Salem News)

A Gloucester city councilor, seeking to cut down on the food supply for scavenging coyotes, wants institute fines for residents who don’t secure their trash. (Gloucester Times)

The town of Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard is eyeing a proposal to allow tiny houses — those with less than 400 square feet — to be built on single-family home lots sharing a single septic system in an effort to ease the island’s affordable housing crunch. (Cape Cod Times)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

A federal Appeals Court early Sunday morning refused to lift the restraining order blocking enforcement of President Trump’s immigration ban. (NPR)

In an op-ed for the Salem News, US Rep. Seth Moulton says Trump and his advisors “use lies to manipulate what Americans think, to pit us against one another, and to pervert our democracy to attain power.” The rise of the alt-right media, which spreads Trumps falsehoods under the guise of facts, may be one of the reasons no one disputes the alternative facts. (New York Times)

White House aides are rethinking their rapid-fire approach to governing and are looking at bringing Trump into the loop sooner on executive order briefings. Apparently, the president was not fully briefed on the order he signed making top political advisor Steve Bannon a member of the National Security Council. (New York Times)

Sen. John McCain, a one-time prisoner of war whom Donald Trump branded a loser for being captured, has emerged as the president’s chief Republican critic. (Boston Globe)

Jeffrey Sachs says Trump’s belligerence toward China is taking the US down a dangerous and counterproductive path. (Boston Globe)

A bill in the Florida legislature would hold businesses that ban guns liable if anyone is injured in a shooting on their premises. (National Review)

ELECTIONS

Politico’s Lauren Dezenski says talk of Attorney General Maura Healey running for governor next year has increased in Democratic party circles since the November election, since which she has emerged as a leading local voice against Donald Trump.

This may come as a shock, but not only is Trump’s suggestion in a recent tweet that those protesting in the streets don’t bother to vote wrong, research suggests those who show up at protests tend to vote at higher rates than the population as a whole. (Washington Post)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A coalition of more than 100 of the top technology companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, have filed an amicus brief in the suit over Trump’s immigration ban, saying the order is unconstitutional and would hurt businesses. (New York Times)

Jim Rooney, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said area business leaders are concerned over how the immigration ban will affect them and said many companies are getting “mixed signals” by the new administration’s approach to business. (Keller@Large)\

A corn flake that (sort of) resembles the head of Donald Trump can be yours for a mere $13,000, one of an astounding quarter of a million Trump-related items available on eBay. (Boston Globe)

EDUCATION

A conservative lawyer who represented a white female student in Texas challenging affirmative action admissions is setting his sights on Harvard University, which he claims caps the number of Asian-American students. (U.S. News & World Report)

The Worcester schools are scrapping plans for a separate admissions-based high school for the time being, though the superintendent says she does see the need for “some type of advanced academy.” (Telegram & Gazette)

A Globe editorial praises legislation that would allow more autonomous “empowerment zones” in low-performing school districts like the one now operating in Springfield.

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

A study published in The BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal, finds foreign-trained doctors practicing in the United States have better patient survival rates than their American-trained counterparts. (Time)

TRANSPORTATION

US cities are trying to take lessons from Sweden in devising strategies to reduce pedestrian fatalities. (Governing)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The Supreme Judicial Court will hear a case today on whether the state has been improperly denying public records requests based on an exemption to guard public safety and cybersecurity. (Boston Globe)

Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley launches a diversion program for juvenile offenders to try to steer young people down the right path and avoid saddling them with criminal records. (Boston Globe)

A Middlesex Sheriff captain who is part of the department’s Honor Guard was arrested and charged with indecent assault and battery on a person over the age of 14. (Lowell Sun)

A Boston Public Schools data analyst is called “heroic” but he says he was reckless for stepping in to stop a fight last week at the school department headquarters in which one teen fired a gun at another. (Boston Herald)

  • Mhmjjj2012

    CommonWealth’s readers most likely noticed how a few words were repeated numerous times in The Boston Globe’s editorial on “empowerment zones.” For example, “forward” was used in the editorial’s title then another four times in the editorial itself. “Zone” showed up nine times. “Charter schools” were noted three times. “Urban” came up five times even though students in about 110 Massachusetts municipalities do not have access to vocational technical classes. “Funding” was not mentioned one single time…not once…even though a report issue in 2015 found the Foundation Budget…the mechanism used to distribute state aid to local public schools underfunds English language learners, low income and special education students. And how’s the only “empowerment zone” working in Springfield? It was set up for the 2015-2016 school year and according to a November 2, 2016 article in New England Public Radio, “The test results for the first full year of the Empowerment Zone came in last month. Duggan (School) showed solid improvement. The other schools are more of a mixed bag, with some scores up and some down.” So “empowerment zones” are a “mixed bag.” What’s a real hoot is The Boston Globe’s editorial specifically stated Governor Baker “gave a shout-out to state Representative Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley and state Senator Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow” for the legislation they filed to bring the “empowerment zone experiment” across the state. Peisch and Lessor were among the legislators not only voting themselves a huge raise but also voting to overturn the Governor’s veto of that raise. Those legislators cashed in for themselves while leaving public school students with an “experiment” whose results are a “mixed bag.” That’s what Governor Baker, Sen. Lessor and Rep. Peisch are hanging their hats on…instead of ensuring every public school is fully funded by the Foundation Budget.