Massachusetts commits to criminal justice review

State leaders join national movement to rethink tough-on-crime policies

WITH POLICING PRACTICES, high incarceration rates among minorities, and stiff drug sentencing laws drawing scrutiny across the country, Massachusetts will join a national wave of state efforts to rethink criminal justice policies.

Leaders of the three branches of state government have jointly requested a Department of Justice-funded review that will examine all aspects of the state’s criminal justice policies, with an eye toward reforms that can reduce corrections costs while improving public safety through lower recidivism rates.

A formal announcement of the request will be made on Monday.

The analysis will be part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project funded by the Justice Department and the Pew Center on the States. A team from the Council of State Governments will come to Massachusetts to carry out the policy review.

Thirty states have carried out these analyses, including many conservative Southern states that would seem unlikely leaders of an effort to reduce prison populations.

Today’s expected announcement comes after months of behind the scenes negotiations among state leaders, who differ on some issues, but ultimately agreed to move forward with a process designed to find common ground on areas of criminal justice policy for reform.

Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Stan Rosenberg speak with reporters after meeting with Boston 2024 officials.

Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Stan Rosenberg, together with Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, have committed to a comprehensive review of criminal justice policies aimed at reducing corrections costs and lowering recidivism rates.

“It’s very significant that we have all four leaders in agreement,” said Senate President Stan Rosenberg, who started pushing for such an outside analysis more than seven years ago. The letter to the Justice Department and Pew seeking the policy review was signed by Rosenberg, Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants.

Although the analysis will cover the full range of criminal justice policies, the letter asks that the review pay particular attention to strategies to reduce recidivism and aid the reentry of offenders back in the community following incarceration. Three-year recidivism rates for prisoners released from Massachusetts state prison is 40 percent, with the rate reaching 60 percent after six years.

A shortcoming of Massachusetts policy that criminal justice experts have highlighted for years is the inadequate supervision of reentry through parole or probation. The letter from state leaders points out that 39 percent of all inmates leaving state prison are released directly to the streets with no period of post-incarceration supervision.

Once the project receives final approval from the Justice Department and Pew, the Council of State Governments will deploy a “strike force” of policy analysts who will spend six to nine months here poring over Massachusetts criminal justice data and policies. They will formulate recommendations for reforms together with a working group that will include representatives from all three branches of government and representatives from different areas of the criminal justice system. The idea is to come up with policy and legislative reforms that have broad support.

“We have a lot we can do while people are in prison, while they’re in jail, and there’s a ton we should be doing to help with reentry,” Baker said about the Justice Reinvestment initiative. “I think it can be really helpful.”

“If we are the House of Correction, let’s correct something,” says Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who has been a leader in efforts to bolster reentry programs. Tompkins has also called for more drug and mental health treatment services for inmates, saying at least 70 percent of those in the Suffolk County House of Correction have substance abuse problems. “We are not the house of warehousing, or we shouldn’t be,” says Tompkins, lamenting the fact that of those leaving the Suffolk County jail, “half will probably be back.”

It may be easier to find agreement on reforms to beef up reentry programs or probation, however, than on some other policies.

Gants

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants testified at a June hearing in support of legislation that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.

Mandatory minimum drug sentences have become a flashpoint for debate in the state. Gants, the SJC chief justice, has staked out a prominent position calling for elimination of mandatory minimums for drug offenses, which strip judges of any discretion to consider the circumstances of a crime. Gants has highlighted their disparate effect on minorities, who received 75 percent of all mandatory minimum drug sentences in 2013, though they accounted for only 44 percent of all those sentenced for drug offenses.

The state’s district attorneys have argued equally strongly that mandatory minimums should remain in place, and that they have been a crucial contributor to the success in driving crime rates in half over the last 25 years.

Rosenberg supports ending mandatory minimums for drug charges, while Baker and DeLeo have yet to stake out on clear positions on the issue. The Baker administration has emphasized in recent months the state’s overall low incarceration rate, which some read as a signal he may be cool to major changes to mandatory minimums.

The governor has made the opioid addiction crisis and drug treatment a high priority. During last year’s campaign, he indicated in a position statement to the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums that he thinks “reforming mandatory minimum sentences could be part of an overall strategy to rethink how those with substance abuse issues are treated.”

As CommonWealth reported in the cover story of the magazine’s summer issue, Massachusetts is, in some ways, both a leader and laggard when it comes to criminal justice issues. The state revamped some sentencing laws in recent years, reducing the length of mandatory minimum drug sentences and shrinking the area surrounding schools and parks where drug offenses can carry added sanctions. And in 2010 the state passed a measure regulating employer access to criminal records that was designed to lower the barriers to jobs faced by ex-offenders.

Massachusetts also has one of the lowest incarceration rates of any state. But critics of current policies say that’s no reason to ignore changes that could further reduce corrections costs and the state’s prison population without jeopardizing public safety. It costs roughly $47,000 a year to house an inmate in the state prison system.

Reform advocates say the state has resisted the sort of comprehensive, evidence-based review of policies that many other states have welcomed.

Texas was able to cut $450 million from its corrections budget after adopting policy changes recommended by the Justice Reinvestment analysis, while steering $250 million of the savings to drug and mental health treatment.

North Carolina focused on the fact that half of those in its prisons were there because they violated the terms of their probation. Marc Pelka, who oversees the Justice Reinvestment analyses for the Council of State Governments, says state officials in North Carolina devised policies to “sanction probationers in the community” without resorting to reincarceration.

The review in Massachusetts comes as states across the country are reassessing many of the “tough on crime” policies put in place during the 1980s and 1990s. Those policies, a response to increasing crime rates and the crack epidemic, have led to a massive increase in the nation’s prison population.

The number of people in prison in the US has quadrupled since 1980. Despite being home to just 5 percent of the world population, the US now claims 25 percent of all those incarcerated worldwide, with 2.2 million people behind bars in the country.

Last month, President Obama joined the debate through a series of high-profile announcements and events. Over the course of one week, he issued clemency orders releasing 46 federal prisoners serving lengthy sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, became the first sitting president to ever visit a federal prison, and delivered a speech to the NAACP that called for a dramatic rethinking of criminal justice and sentencing practices.

He called for lowering or eliminating mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses. He said inmates should be able to reduce their sentences if they complete programs in prison that make it less likely they will reoffend. And he called for more alternatives to prison, like drug courts and treatment programs, that he said can save money on corrections and  prove more effective in preventing future offenses by those individuals.

“In too many cases our criminal justice system ends up being a pipeline from underfunded, inadequate schools to overcrowded jails,” said Obama. “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it. But here’s the good news. I am feeling more hopeful today because even now, when, let’s face it, it seems like Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on anything, a lot of them agree on this.”

Conservative leaders like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Newt Gingrich are calling for reforms along with Cory Booker and liberal Democrats.

Republican-dominated “red” states have been reforming their drug and sentencing laws, driven by arguments that too many people are being deprived of freedom for too long, and by fiscal concerns over runaway corrections costs. The Texas-based group Right on Crime has spearheaded the conservative call for reform. Meanwhile, a bipartisan coalition recently formed a new Washington-based organization to push for change. The Coalition for Public Safety brings together some of the most unlikely allies imaginable, with the Koch brothers and Right on Crime joining with the ACLU and liberal-leaning Center for American Progress to call for criminal justice reforms.

But it is not only red states that are reexamining their criminal justice policies. Among New England states, Connecticut and New Hampshire have already carried out Justice Reinvestment analyses. Meanwhile, Rhode Island signed on to the initiative last month.

“We’re kicking off something very exciting,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said last month at an event at the Rhode Island capitol unveiling the Justice Reinvestment project. “It will move us towards a more data-driven, outcome-oriented system, where, I believe in the end, we can save money, bring about justice, and help folks get reintegrated in the community more effectively and efficiently.”

Raimondo, a Democrat who worked in venture capital before winning office last November, brings a business-honed pragmatism and appetite for evidence-based solutions that seems to parallel some of Charlie Baker’s less ideological, results-oriented policy instincts. The neighboring governors, Harvard graduates who were elected on the same day, have forged a bipartisan bond, attending each other’s inaugurations in early January.

“The focus and the approach needs to be on using a data-driven approach and doing what works,” Raimando said. “Not doing what we think works, not doing what we’ve always done, not doing what our gut tells us to do. Looking at the data and doing what we know works.”

Massachusetts leaders are pledging to do the same.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“Our state leaders recognize that collecting and analyzing criminal justice data is the most rational way to make administrative and policy decisions,” the four Massachusetts officials wrote in their letter seeking the outside review of criminal justice policies.