Brownsberger: Criminal justice reform top priority

To reduce crime, reduce incarceration rates

MY ONGOING TOP PRIORITY as Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committee is criminal justice reform.

The criminal justice system is filled with committed professionals – police, prosecutors, judges, and probation, parole and correctional officers. Most of the laws that govern the system made sense when they were enacted and are still individually defensible.

Yet, taken together, the burdens imposed by the system are crushing for individuals who have made mistakes and destructive to social cohesion generally. Incarceration rates in Massachusetts are very high by world and historical standards (even if they are low by skewed U.S. standards). And the system makes it hard for people to get back on their feet after release from prison.

Last week, eleven Senators came together to discuss some of their ideas for reform with the press. We divided reform ideas into three categories: pre-supervisory or “front end”, supervisory or “back end”, and collateral.

Pre-supervisory ideas include diversion and restorative justice – finding ways to heal people who get in trouble as an alternative to actually prosecuting them. Other front end ideas with strong sponsorship include bail reform to reduce unnecessary pre-trial incarceration and ending mandatory minimum sentences to allow case-by-case decision-making by judges.

In the supervisory category, many legislators are concerned about the overuse of solitary confinement and the unavailability of medical release for terminally-ill inmates. Some are also interested in parole reform: Few inmates are released on parole; instead, they just get released at the end of their sentence and so get no formal reintegration support as they return to the community.

On Tuesday morning, we rolled out a package proposal based on a study by the Council on State Governments that focused within the supervisory category on the question of how we can reduce recidivism (people returning to prison a second time).

Research shows that locking a person up with other convicts will generally make them more likely to reoffend – so the most important crime reduction strategy may be to reduce incarceration. The CSG package strengthens incentives for inmates to participate in rehabilitative programming – offering them sentence reductions up to a theoretical maximum of 35% for diligent participation. These incentives may both reduce incarceration and at the same time make incarceration a more useful experience. The package also endeavors to strengthen the human services that we are providing to people in prison and in the community on probation or parole.

The “collateral” category includes the automatic, non-correctional consequences of criminal justice involvement – loss of driver’s license, fees we exact from inmates, parolees and probationers, and employment and housing barriers erected by public criminal records.

The collateral reforms are every bit as important as the pre-supervisory and supervisory reforms. Every one of the fees and other automatic consequences that we impose on people has a justification to it and made sense to a majority of the legislature at some point. But cumulatively, they are crushing and people spiral downward as each problem creates another.

Meet the Author

William Brownsberger

Senator, Massachusetts Senate
While many legislators are very engaged and committed to reform, others have yet to weigh in so we don’t know how the votes will add up. My opportunity and commitment as Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committee is to do all I can to move these issues to the top of the agenda for consideration and to define the choices fairly and clearly for my colleagues.

I’m very hopeful that over the next 18 months we will be able to enact pre-supervisory, supervisory and collateral reforms, and that we will meaningfully lighten the cumulative destructive burden of the criminal justice system.

William Brownsberger is a state senator from Belmont. This article first appeared on his website