House budget proposes new re-entry spending
Advocates cheer efforts to fund recidivism reduction programs
ONE WEEK AFTER the Legislature passed sweeping new criminal justice reform reforms aimed at turning the system away from incarceration and toward second chances and rehabilitation, the House is proposing new spending for programs aimed at helping offenders get on the right track.
The 2019 state budget plan unveiled on Wednesday by House Ways and Means Committee chairman Jeffrey Sanchez includes more than $7 million in new spending for pre-trial diversion programs and specialty courts and $4 million for re-entry programs aimed at those leaving correctional facilities.
The bill passed last week eliminates some mandatory minimum sentences, creates more pathways for diverting cases away from criminal sanctions, raises the age from 7 to 12 for children to be tried in juvenile court, institutes reforms to the bail system, and includes other provisions aimed at tamping down the heavy reach of the criminal justice system. But the bill contains no funding for services to help offenders get on the right path and avoid future entanglements with the system, something that advocates and some lawmakers pushed unsuccessfully to include in the reform package.
Advocates shifted their focus to the budget debate, where they hoped to secure funding for efforts aimed at reducing recidivism.
About 40 percent of those released from state prisons are convicted of a new offense within three years, and a major focus of the criminal justice reform conversation in the state has been reducing that rate.
However, while the state was the midst of its wide-ranging examination of criminal justice policies, programs focused on recidivism were disappearing. In the fall of 2016, a widely praised re-entry program for inmates leaving the Suffolk County House of Correction was quietly shut down when the federal grant funding it wasn’t renewed. A companion program that worked with inmates leaving state prisons for Boston neighborhoods was also shuttered as a result. The county program has since been partly restored, but not at the same level as before.
Meanwhile, several community-based residential programs have closed or had to consolidate over the past several years.
The House budget includes $3 million for residential re-entry programs, $500,000 for re-entry services for inmates leaving state prisons, and an increase in funding for job training funding for ex-prisoners from $150,000 to $500,000.
“That’s really great stuff,” said Lew Finfer, executive director of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, a group of religious congregations that has been part of a coalition of organizations pushing for criminal justice reform on Beacon Hill. “People assume it’s going on,” he said of state support for re-entry programs. “But it’s not. They’re funded by federal grants or philanthropy or other sources.”
The state has, until now, allocated just $90,000 for community-based residential re-entry programs, while other states allocate millions of dollars to such services.
The president of Community Resources for a Justice, a Boston-based nonprofit that provides residential re-entry services, applauded the House proposal. “This really does target the recidivism reduction that is the target of the criminal justice reform package, and it’s a welcome and appreciated investment,” said John Larivee.
Larivee said well-run residential re-entry programs have been shown to reduce recidivism by as much as 25 percent.
The House budget also proposes a $2.5 million expansion of specialty courts geared toward those with addiction problems and other issues, and it boosts spending by $1 million for diversion programs run by the Department of Mental Health and increases by $3 million diversion programs aimed at those with substance abuse problems.Asked whether the state had, until now, dropped the ball on re-entry services and programming aimed at reducing recidivism, Sanchez, who grew up in the Mission Hill housing projects in Boston, said, “I’m a product of the 70s and 80s. And being a Puerto Rican guy who grew up in this town, there’s a lot that I could say we dropped the ball on.”
He said the test will be what the state does going forward, and whether it’s ready to commit funding to re-entry and other services now, and potentially increase that over time. “This is where the rubber meets the road,” said Sanchez. “The bill passed, the investments are here. Now it’s up to us to make it happen. And for all of us to stay close to what we’re doing. This isn’t done. This is far from done. This is just the beginning.”