A new social contract on public safety

Criminal justice reform can strike the right balance

THE MASSACHUSETTS SENATE recently passed a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill. It aims to improve public safety while reducing the size and cost of the prison system. More importantly, the bill is an opportunity for a new social contract related to public safety.

In 2014, I started a program in Pittsfield working with youth at risk of gang violence. At times in that effort law enforcement and communities impacted by crime and poverty worked closely to address the problem. In other moments dangerous gaps emerged. Understanding that divide—and finding ways to close it—is critical for our Commonwealth and the country.

Everyone agreed the criminal justice system needed help. Three-quarters of people going to jail have already been there and a majority experience behavioral and mental health issues. Both sides agreed drugs were destroying neighborhoods and police presence can create space for kids to be kids. Common concern focused on generational poverty and the limited hope that made crime more appealing.

Yet the program revealed disparities in perspective. Community members felt others lacked appreciation for the fact that government policies exacerbated poverty in communities of color. Decades of federal policies kept African-American families from accessing federal mortgages and black business owners from loans. It was difficult to get recognition of the direct link between the challenges faced today in neighborhoods with high crime rates and the generations without wealth transfers, de facto segregation in schools, and a war on drugs that disrupted families.

At the same time, police felt others did not appreciate the massive increase in guns encountered on the street and youth willing to use them. They have watched social problems expand and aggressively confront them. They are on the front lines confronting an addiction epidemic and the implications of poverty, and wonder why they are expected to solve all those problems. Theirs has been an admirable profession—guardians of the community—but just getting home safely to their families feels harder and harder each day.

A new social contract is required. The classic social contract is a trade-off: an individual gives up certain freedoms in exchange for the state protecting the rest. You don’t commit crimes and your freedom, safety and opportunity are guaranteed.

But we have not upheld this bargain for either side. Instead, safety and opportunity too often depend on circumstance. Crime is concentrated geographically. The wealth of parents determines lifelong earnings and education attainment. Addiction and mental health interventions lag behind.

Genuine public safety will be achieved when all sides come together to understand and address underlying drivers of crime and work together to stop serious criminals. There are four ways to do this in the criminal justice system.

First, signal the war on drugs as we knew it is over. Repealing mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses is a key first step. The Senate bill moves away from trying to arrest our way out of addiction and tries to move low-level sellers out of the drug economy. It gets individuals help to confront addiction or on the path to opportunity, while allowing for individualized justice based on the discretion of the judge.

Second, end the war on people experiencing poverty. The Senate bill works to reduce the long-term entanglement in the criminal justice system because you can’t pay. It eases or eliminates things like parole and counsel fees, allows more fines to be worked off, and limits use of incarceration to collect fees and fines. The bill creates a trust fund that invests money saved through reform into neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by crime and the war on drugs.

Third, don’t make an encounter with the criminal justice system a life sentence. For example, this bill allows juveniles to seal records within one year and expunge misdemeanors all together. It increases opportunities for housing and employment by limiting CORI access. It expands use of diversion so treatment or services get to those in need. The system should not keep people from getting on their feet; that is exactly what we want them to do.

In exchange, fourth, it means remaining focused on fighting serious criminals. Law enforcement has sought stronger penalties on solicitation of murder, intimidation of witnesses, and other tools. These are also included in the bill.

Opponents will say this sounds like being soft on crime. But in fact “red states” are taking the lead on repealing mandatory minimums and bail reform in an effort to cut costs. Most police confirm the best approach to crime and prevention is socioeconomic, or a focus on mental health and ensuring individuals get support putting their life together after jail.

Meet the Author

Adam Hinds

Senator, Massachusetts State Senate
The House this week also passed a meaningful criminal justice measure, and the two branches will now work to craft a final bill. This is a once in a generation opportunity to build the most effective criminal justice system possible. But getting there requires thoughtful policy changes, strong partnerships between law enforcement and communities, and leadership throughout the Commonwealth.

Adam Hinds is a state senator representing the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden District.