Its time for Romney to reform the correctional system

Pledging themselves to the cause of reform, Gov. Mitt Romney and his team have taken on a number of shibboleths in state government during their first year in office. From UMass to the courts, the Romney administration has raised legitimate questions about the way state government organizes and delivers vital services to citizens of the Commonwealth and put forward ambitious, if not always persuasive, plans for improving public services in Massachusetts. If the governor has done so with an eye toward scoring points with the electorate, who can blame him?

But governing is not just about picking your battles. Sometimes, the battle picks you. In this way, the first true test of Romney as governor, not just politician, has come from the state Department of Correction.

If the governor were to draw straws, he could hardly have done worse. The correctional system performs a vital, if largely unappreciated, public service. Even in the most perfect society, there will always be malefactors, and, as Nelson Mandela has said, the way any society treats those behind bars is “a reflection of its character.” Even without sentimentalizing sociopaths, it is in the best interests of a free society that those who victimize their fellow citizens be redirected into the law-abiding mainstream. If the DOC fails in its mission of correction, the Commonwealth becomes a more dangerous place.

Romney did not set out to take on this particular challenge. A law-and-order regime that staked out its criminal-justice turf on a sex-offender registry and restoration of the death penalty (on scientifically irrefutable grounds Romney has appointed a task force to develop), the Romney administration did nothing to make inmate rehabilitation a centerpiece of its reform agenda. A gubernatorial working group on criminal justice appointed shortly after the administration took office did put mandatory post-release supervision–a worthy idea put forward by the MassINC report From Cell to Street–on its agenda, but little has come of the body or its agenda. No broader review of correctional policy was ever contemplated.

Then, in August, came the cellblock killing of John Geoghan. A defrocked priest sent to prison for child sexual abuse–a crime despised not only by society but also by inmates–Geoghan did not make a sympathetic victim. But the revelation of a frail old man being tormented on a daily basis by prison guards was more shocking than the killing itself, by a fellow inmate. Although the team initially assigned to investigate Geoghan’s death in state custody and the circumstances leading up to it–a trio of DOC and correctional industry insiders–gave rise to suspicion of a coming whitewash, the subsequent appointment of a “blue-ribbon” panel of respected outside reviewers, chaired by former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, now heralds the most sweeping re-examination of correctional purpose and method in a generation.

The extent of the rethinking underway is evident within the administration itself. Testifying before a legislative committee in late October, Public Safety Secretary Edward Flynn expressly refuted the Weld Doctrine (the former governor pledged, as a candidate in 1990, to “reintroduce prisoners to the joys of busting rocks”) that has guided, rhetorically if not literally, criminal justice philosophy for a dozen years. “We are emerging from an era in which Massachusetts was proud to be ‘tough on crime,'” Flynn told the Public Safety Committee. “This emphasis on punishment over rehabilitation came with a price tag, which was costly both economically and socially.”

The economic cost has come to the attention of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which recently pointed out the uncomfortable reality that, after cuts to higher education in the last two budgets, the state now spends more on state and county corrections ($830 million in fiscal 2004) than it does on public colleges and universities ($816 million). “We simply cannot afford the course of rapid expansion in prison populations–and even more rapid growth in costs–that has characterized the corrections budget for more than two decades,” MTF concluded.

When it comes to corrections, reform can be perilous, at least politically. Already, the Boston Herald has chided Flynn for his “get smart not tough” testimony, charging in an editorial that Flynn’s vision of criminal-justice reform “risks igniting a legislative retreat from tough criminal justice policies implemented successfully over the past 12 years in favor of ‘rehabilitation.’ Any such move would be incredibly stupid.”

Though this pre-emptive editorial broadside was directed more at liberal legislators than at the administration, which shows few bleeding-heart tendencies, the Romneyites should be aware of the bodies strewn along the path of prison reform. There was John O. Boone, the state’s only African-American commissioner of correction to date, who was Gov. Francis Sargent’s chosen clean-up artist. In that post-Attica era, Boone tried to give voice to inmate grievances, but that backfired in prison violence –and a revolt by correction officers. Boone was soon gone, but Sargent still managed to push a package of reforms through the Legislature, adding halfway houses, work release, and furloughs to the correctional repertoire.

In the mid-1980s, Gov. Michael Dukakis continued Sargent’s community-reintegration approach, but also launched the prison-building boom that MTF says we can no longer afford and pushed a precursor to the “truth in sentencing” law that resulted in continued growth of prison populations throughout the ’90s. That didn’t keep Willie Horton’s fateful furlough from defining Dukakis’s (national) profile on the crime issue–and dooming the reintegrative model of corrections even before Weld’s rock-busting declaration.

Soon after his appointment to head Romney’s commission, Harshbarger told the Herald that one of the key goals of corrections is to make sure that inmates “don’t leave [prison] more dangerous than when they went in.” That’s a mantra that’s easier to enunciate than to put into practice. But there is a way to gauge success–or failure–in that correctional mission: recidivism. The rate at which graduates of our state prison system get sent back to prison for committing new crimes can serve to focus efforts to make corrections more effective.

The point has been made in these pages before (“The revolving cell door,” CW, Fall 2000), but it deserves to be made again, under these new circumstances. The switch a few years ago by DOC’s research department from tracking recidivism on a one-year basis (which overemphasizes return to prison for technical parole violations over commitment for new crimes) to a three-year window provides a basis of comparison to other prison systems around the country.

Against national benchmarks, Massachusetts doesn’t look too bad. In the first three years of the new reporting system, state inmates released in 1995, ’96, and ’97 were returned to prison (for parole violations or conviction for new crimes) within three years at a rate of 44, 45, and 41 percent, respectively. These Massachusetts numbers compare favorably to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 15-state recidivism study of 1994 releases (its first since 1983), which yielded a three-year reincarceration rate of 52 percent. But in absolute terms, the rate of recidi-vism here, as elsewhere, is appalling. In what other state agency would failure nearly half the time be considered acceptable?

More to the point, the recidivism rate provides a potentially powerful management tool. Institutionally, DOC has nothing at stake in reducing recidivism; its interest (overwhelming, in the past dozen years) is security. For that reason, the one statistic former commissioner Michael Maloney always had at his fingertips was the number of escapes, which the department could hold down by steadily reducing the proportion of prisoners held at lower levels of security–levels of increasing freedom and responsibility inmates need to go through to prepare for a successful return to the community. The same is true of the Parole Board, which can reduce its chances of embarrassing misdeeds by parolees by denying parole to any inmate who presents the least risk; for that reason, state inmates are currently granted parole at half the rate they were pre-1990. If it’s important to the state–indeed, to public safety–that correctional agencies gear their efforts to turning offenders around, correctional managers need to be held accountable for what ex-offenders do after they’ve left custody.

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This would be a new approach for Romney, in more ways than one. For all the talk of reform, the Romney administration has not gone in for one of the principal mechanisms for change currently in vogue across the country: results-oriented governing. From performance-based budgeting to CitiStat, public managers are increasingly relying on measurable outcomes as a means of reorienting bureaucracies. The recidivism rate would be a new and objective method of accountability for an area of state government that desperately needs one.

And it’s an idea that, once presented to him, Romney showed some enthusiasm for as a candidate. In a long interview with the editors and publishers of CommonWealth, Romney was asked what he would consider a reasonable goal for reducing the rate of repeat criminality. “I would hope the executive branch, and that means me if I’m lucky enough to be elected governor, [could be charged] with the responsibility to cut recidivism in half,” Romney said. “Once we’ve cut it in half, then we should cut it in half again. Once we’ve done that, we should do that again. We’ll make progress step by step.” A worthy goal, indeed. It’s not too late to set it–nor a moment too soon.