Advice to the Governor: Criminal justice overhaul is overdue

Our system costs too much and delivers too little in reducing recidivism

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Massachusetts’s criminal justice system is big, broken, and expensive. Our prisons are overcrowded and our young people continue to do harm to themselves and each other at an alarming rate. The time has come to fix our justice system.

Fixing it won’t be easy, but it is certainly possible. Other states have already taken major steps toward systemic reform that have saved hundreds of millions of dollars and dramatically reduced recidivism rates. Michigan alone saved $500 million over the past seven years through its reform efforts, while lowering levels of repeat offenses and re-incarceration. Since 2007, Kansas has reduced parole revocations by 48 percent, saved $34 million and is anticipated to save another $80 million over the next few years.  

How did they do it? They did it through the right combination of political courage, intellectual honesty, and economic foresight. Central to their success was a willingness to confront misguided policies of an earlier era. They found that being “tough on crime” – a political axiom so commonplace that it has become synonymous with American justice – is a failed concept. Instead, they decided to get “smart on crime.” By reducing mandatory sentencing for non-violent offenders, enacting evidence-based reentry programs, establishing efficient and comprehensive data collection systems, and relying on community-based supervision for ex-offenders instead of long-term sentencing, states have been able to change the economic and social costs of crime.

While the number of inmates in Massachusetts tripled between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, the state’s prison population has remained reasonably stable over the past 15 years. Ironically, the past few years have seen spending on the Departments of Correction and Probation skyrocket well beyond the scale of prison population growth. In FY08 and FY09, the Commonwealth’s combined budget for prisons and probation exceeded any of its individual budgets for higher education, public health, or social services. That alone should raise a red flag about our priorities.

But there is a deeper, more difficult truth that we as a state and nation must confront: Locking lots of people up doesn’t reduce crime. In fact, long prison terms typically result in offenders relapsing into criminal behavior shortly after release. For years, it seems Americans have turned a blind eye to these facts, and sought comfort in the notion of strong punishment instead of measured and sophisticated prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation programming.

As a result, the United States, a country with only 5 percent of the world’s population, houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Yet, we are the world’s wealthiest country and our citizens still enjoy the greatest freedoms on earth. So why have we gotten it so wrong when it comes to our criminal justice system? Have we no compassion?

US Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a national leader in the criminal justice reform movement, has begun to vigorously pursue answers to these very questions and has called for a national criminal justice commission to reevaluate US policies. “We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world,” he said in a 2008 speech. “There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.”

Webb knows, as we all do, that Americans as a people are not evil. So perhaps we have been guided far more by fear than reason and more by self-interest than compassion when it comes to criminal justice. But that does not mean significant change is impossible. If the next governor wants to lead effectively and responsibly, he or she must tell the truth about our criminal justice system and not shy away from the hard facts, both economic and social. Last year Massachusetts spent $1.2 billion on our corrections system. The majority of people in prison and on probation are from lower-income communities. And a massively disproportionate number of those men and women serving sentences or on probation are minorities. The question the next governor must ask him or herself is the same question we as citizens must ask ourselves: How long are we willing to waste money on a system that is not only ineffective, but is also unfair?

Luckily, we live in a state that expects, and often demands, progressive thinking about public policy issues. Give the citizens of Massachusetts a chance to understand what is truly at stake and they often rise to challenge and support forward-thinking reforms. We have been the first in the country on so many fronts. Let us not be the last to make effective reforms in criminal justice.

Here are four steps the Massachusetts governor must take to get criminal justice reform on track:

1. Create a Massachusetts criminal justice reform commission to oversee research, interstate legal coordination, and direct implementation of reform measures. This commission should report directly to the governor, and should not be housed in any of the existing executive agencies. If Sen. Webb’s proposal for a national commission is adopted, coordinate efforts with his national program.

2.  Focus initial reform efforts on sentencing policy, particularly on reducing nonviolent offense sentencing. Mandatory sentencing should be reduced with an eye on reallocating resources to rehabilitation, intervention, and community reentry programming. This is both cost effective for reducing incarceration rates and significantly reduces recidivism when implemented effectively.

3.  Overhaul all rehabilitation programming, replacing it with strictly evidence-based best practice models for everything from transitional employment to drug rehab and education. We can no longer afford to use programming that has no proven track record of success.

4.  Invest in non-profit, non-governmental organizations that specialize in evidence-based, community-oriented intervention, rehabilitation and reintegration. Grow the capacity of small, effective intervention and rehabilitation programs. There currently exist a group of organizations that have professionalized this work, relying on evidenced-based strategies that have proven far more effective than similar efforts by state-run entities. Creating partnerships with private entities will subject the process to market forces that drive competition, economic efficiency, and programmatic efficacy.

These recommendations do not come from on high. They are neither the lofty musings of a naïve or disconnected idealist nor are they merely academic abstractions. These suggestions are rooted in the real, hard work of professionals who have started to change the criminal justice system from the outside and from within. As the founder and director of an organization whose very mission is to help high-risk young adults, including those who have served significant time behind bars, I know what it takes to help ex-convicts, drug dealers, prostitutes, and homeless kids turn their lives around. I am also familiar with the deep, stubborn pain that is left in the wake of senseless violence. This summer alone, three of our young people in Chelsea were senselessly murdered – shot to death over drugs and money.

The violence is real and it is scary. The next governor will have to contend with public fear and desire for retribution every time a new violent crime is committed. But we know –  because of scientific data, because of decades of hardnosed experience out on the streets – that the best way to change a life in risk is not to punish and isolate, but to nourish, support, and educate. There are some criminals that deserve no second chances. But many people in jail are simply guilty of making stupid, immature, and desperate decisions.

Meet the Author
For every kid with a rap sheet that I see walk through the front door of our organization, I see two possibilities: a future with hope or one without any. The next governor must choose which future to invest in.

Molly Baldwin is founder and executive director of Roca, a Chelsea- and Springfield-based agency that provides services to high-risk youth.