Postrelease supervision gets little traction

INTRO TEXT

a new yorker cartoon captured the problem succinctly. It showed a prison cellblock with a large banner hanging overhead: WELCOME BACK, RECIDIVISTS!

According to a 2002 report by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, 49 percent of those released from state and county correctional facilities commit a new offense within one year, a figure that is in line with national recidivism rates. “Incarceration works—until you let people out,” says Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey.

So the search is on for ways to break the revolving-door syndrome of offenders going in and out of prison. One strategy gaining favor here is to require a mandatory period of supervision for every offender released from incarceration. But that doesn’t mean the idea is gaining traction.

Of the 17,000 inmates let out of Massachusetts jails and prisons each year, nearly half have no mandated post-release supervision. One reason is tougher sentencing laws that often allow little room for parole. And as a 2002 MassINC study, From Cell to Street, pointed out, an increasing number of prisoners who are eligible for parole opt to compete their full sentences rather than apply for it—making sure they leave prison with no ongoing oversight.

“It’s beyond ironic, it is madness, that we allow people to determine themselves whether they are supervised when they get out,” Jeremy Travis, the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a leading authority on prison reentry, told CommonWealth last year (“Approaching Reentry,” CW, Summer ’05).

In February 2005 the Romney administration filed legislation calling for mandatory post-release supervision of all released offenders. The bill would revamp sentencing laws to include post-release supervision of every inmate for nine months or for a period equal to 25 percent of the maximum sentence they received, whichever is longer. Similar legislation has been filed by Democratic state representatives Michael Festa, Barry Finegold, and Marie St. Fleur, while Democratic Sen. Cynthia Creem is sponsor of a bill combining post-release supervision with parole eligibility for drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences.

Despite support on both sides of the aisle, however, the idea of expanded post-release supervision seems stuck at the starting gate. In November, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary heard testimony on the bills. But the committee has yet to take action, and there is little prospect of anything happening before the end of formal legislative sessions July 31.

Former attorney general Scott Harshbarger, who resigned in December from a state advisory commission on corrections reform, voiced frustration with the failure to move aggressively to implement the top-to-bottom changes the panel recommended, including mandatory post-release supervision of ex-offenders. Harshbarger says the Legislature has largely “abdicated” responsibility for corrections reform, with House leaders not even filling the two slots on the advisory panel designated for state representatives.

Healey: No need for ‘another task force.’

Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, the House chairman of the judiciary committee, says there may be a good case for post-release supervision of those convicted of violent crimes or drug offenses, but he’s not sure it is warranted for every offender. What’s more, though the committee heard compelling arguments in favor of post-release supervision, “what we didn’t hear a lot of testimony on was the fiscal side of this,” says O’Flaherty. Nonetheless, the House budget released in April includes an additional $1 million for prisoner reentry services.

Advocates say reduced recidivism rates would eventually save the state money by lowering the population behind bars, where costs per inmate exceed $40,000 a year. But those savings, if they materialize at all, would come down the road, while the bill for an expanded supervision system would come due much sooner.

O’Flaherty says he plans to form a small “working group” representing different facets of the criminal justice community to shape a post-release supervision bill that could be taken up next session. But Healey says the time for that has come and gone.

“This bill was filed over a year ago as a result of over a year of work where all the key stakeholders from the criminal justice world were in place,” says Healey. “Another task force to look at this is probably not necessary. Now is the time to move forward.”

“We know what works,” says Harshbarger. “What we lack is the political will.”

Political will may well be lacking, but there are also questions about what does work. A 2005 study by the Urban Institute found little difference in recidivism rates among those released under parole versus those with no post-release supervision.

Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, says she is not surprised. With corrections spending already approaching $1 billion, Walker thinks post-release supervision would be throwing “good money after bad” unless it’s part of a broader set of reforms, including intensive education and job training within prisons, plus help in navigating the employment hurdles ex-offenders face because of their criminal records.

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.

“Those two things would be much more helpful to recidivism than following these guys around who get dumped on the street with a $50 check and no skills,” she says.

Still, if lawmakers are not jumping on the bandwagon for post-release supervision, an approach with a considerable public safety component, it’s hard to imagine mustering the “political will” for a more ambitious reentry agenda.