State kicks-off criminal justice review
No crisis, say analysts, but plenty of room for improvement
THE STATE BEGAN on Tuesday a comprehensive review of criminal justice policies that aims to take a data-driven approach to issues often heavily influenced by passions and perceptions. In that spirit, two pieces of data stood out at the first meeting of the 25-member group charged with leading the policy review and recommending reforms to reduce corrections costs and invest savings into strategies to reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe pointed out that Massachusetts has the 48th lowest incarceration rate in the country, putting us near the back of the pack when it comes to imprisonment rates. But state Sen. Will Brownsberger emphasized the dramatic spike in incarceration rates that has occurred over a longer period, with the state prison population increasing five-fold – from about 2,000 to 10,000 – from the early 1970s to today.
Somewhere between those two data points, which paint very different pictures of the state of criminal justice policy in Massachusetts, stakeholders from all branches of government and all facets of the criminal justice system will look for common ground over the next year on reforms to recommend.
The process was launched last year when Senate President Stan Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Gov. Charlie Baker, and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants submitted a joint request to the Justice Department and Pew. The Council of State Governments (CSG) has been hired by Pew and DOJ to carry out the review. Massachusetts is the 24th state to sign on to have a review done by the CSG.
At Tuesday’s first meeting of the working group, officials from the Council’s Justice Center laid out the scope of the review and some baseline data on the state’s criminal justice system.
One big area the review is likely to focus on is recidivism and the parole or probation supervision of those released from incarceration. Forty percent of those released from state prison in Massachusetts return to the community under no parole or probation supervision, the Justice Center officials said in their presentation. According to a national study, in 2012 only six states had higher rates of inmate release with no supervision, and four of those have since adopted new policies to increase post-release supervision. Three-year reincarceration rates for those released from state prison in Massachusetts are about 40 percent.
Criminal convictions in the state have decreased 31 percent over the last decade and the inmate population in county houses of correction is down 35 percent since 2006. The state prison population, however, has remained fairly stable, though the number of inmates in state prison for drug offenses has fallen 44 percent in just the last five years.
“The problem here in Massachusetts is you do a lot of things well,” Steve Allen, a senior policy advisor at the Council of State Governments, told the meeting. “We’re probably not going to be recommending overhauling things,” he said, suggesting that focused recommendations in certain areas were more likely than sweeping reform proposals.
“There is no crisis in Massachusetts,” said Katie Mosehauer, the Council of State Government’s project manager for the initiative.
State Rep. John Fernandes, one of four co-chairs of the working group and the House chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, said after the meeting that he smiled at that comment because there are those with strong views “who think we’re in a major crisis.”