Baker sees ‘something really big’ coming in criminal justice reform

Governor's comments come after tour of ed facility for inmates


WHEN GOV. CHARLIE BAKER walked out of an intensive educational program for prison inmates last week, he thought to himself, “why the . . . did it take so long for us to get around to creating this?” he said Monday morning, inserting a pause where his thoughts may have placed an expletive.

The School of Reentry, run at the Department of Correction’s pre-release center in Roslindale, aims to prepare inmates to re-enter society through education, vocational training, counseling, job preparation and personal development.

With innovative new programs for prisoners and an ongoing analysis of the state’s criminal justice system by the Council on State Governments’ Justice Center, Massachusetts is “on the brink of something really big” as it embarks to reform the criminal justice system, Baker predicted.

“It feels to me like there is a real sensibility at this point about the way this needs to work and where we need to go and the fact that we have to get a lot smarter and a lot better about helping people find pathways into productive life,” Baker said at a fundraiser for Roca, an organization that provides high-intensity programming for at-risk youth in Greater Boston and Springfield.

Though Massachusetts’s incarceration rate — 188 adults behind bars for every 100,000 citizens, according to the National Institute of Corrections — is the third lowest in the nation, people who have previous convictions account for 79 percent of state prison sentences and 84 percent of sentences to county houses of correction, according to an initial Justice Center analysis.

Criminal justice reform efforts over the years have typically sought to find balance between being smart on crime and being tough on offenders. The costs of establishing training and rehabilitation programs within the walls of correctional facilities have also long been an impediment to sweeping reform.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who joined Baker, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants to partner with the Justice Center, said he too is most interested to take “a strong look” at programs that have proven to be effective at breaking the cycle of recidivism.

“Although there is still much study and I’m anxiously awaiting some of that study, I believe that we’re probably not giving enough in terms of programming, either before they’re ready to get out or when they get out, in terms of oversight,” he said. “That old TV scene you may see where they let the prisoner out and he or she is just on the sidewalk … surprisingly, I think that’s true in some cases.”

In 2014, former Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration signed a pay for success (PFS) contract with Roca, investing $27 million in support services, skills training and job placement that will cost the state nothing unless it succeeds.

The seven-year project will use a form of financing known as social impact bonds that will collect private and philanthropic money to run the program. If an independent evaluator determines that Roca has achieved specific, predetermined outcomes, the state will pay back those grants and loans.

Molly Baldwin, the founder and CEO of Roca, said the risky venture has so far proven to be effective. Roca retained 84 percent of the young people it worked with last fiscal year, and of the young men in the third or fourth years of Roca programming, 87 percent have held a job for six months or longer, 93 percent have no new arrests and 98 percent have no new incarcerations, according to the organization.

“Because as the nation is between a rock and hard place trying to find ways for these young men, it was time for us to run into danger and put our model to the test,” Baldwin said Monday. “I am humbled to report to you that we are where we projected to be two-and-a-half years in.”

The state’s partnership with Roca extends even further. Baker said that when the state needed to find workers to do some “modest construction work” at the Registry of Motor Vehicles branch in Springfield, the call went to Roca.

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“They can be an enormously successful, terrific ally in helping us do the work we need to do and at the same time give many of these young men an opportunity to participate more fully and fruitfully in opportunities in our communities,” Baker said. “I’m here to say — as somebody who is a paying customer of Roca and the folks who work with Roca — to say that we are a very satisfied paying customer.”