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Gov. Baker's Criminal Justice Reform Is Half A Loaf At Best

Immigration arrests are shaking things up in local communities.
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On Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker and several legislative and judicial leaders announced a bipartisan initiative to decrease the rate of recidivism in the Commonwealth, namely, the percentage of people released from local jails and state prisons who later wind up back behind bars. 

The heart of the legislation revolves around a plan to encourage inmates to participate in rehabilitation programs designed to deter future criminal conduct.  As an incentive to prisoners, the bill would allow program participants to earn time off from their sentences. Senator William Brownsberger anticipates that many inmates could realistically earn a 25 percent reduction in their sentences.   

The proposal is a “win-win.” For one thing, it fosters involvement in programs with a track record of helping prisoners re-enter their communities and decreasing recidivism. Moreover, it would cut into the exorbitant expenses associated with imprisonment. According to the Massachusetts Department of Correction, for fiscal year 2014, it cost an average of $53,040.87 to house an inmate per year.

But focusing on back-end reforms like this ignores equally pressing issues related to the front end. Despite the state’s relatively low incarceration rate, why do far too many people end up in prison in the first place and for such a long time?  Massachusetts still requires mandatory minimum sentences for many offenses, including some nonviolent crimes. Mandatory minimum sentencing generally forces judges to impose a specific sentence regardless of the case circumstances or the offender’s characteristics. 

As in many states, there is also a problem with “overcriminalization” in the Commonwealth. The sheer volume of offenses in our code — and the grading of rather minor crimes as high-level misdemeanors or felonies — means that many residents become embroiled in our criminal justice system at an early age and, once ensnared, find it difficult to escape completely and build a productive life. All too often those residents are people of color from low-income communities.

And what about the conditions of confinement for prisoners in the Bay State? Massachusetts is one of a handful of jurisdictions that allow prisoners to be placed in solitary confinement for up to ten years for disciplinary infractions. The Commonwealth also permits prisoners to be put in long-term administrative segregation for a variety of non-disciplinary reasons. Once in solitary, prisoners are typically locked in a cell that is six feet by eight feet (roughly the size of a parking space) for 23 hours per day.

Advocates and former inmates gather at a Jobs Not Jails event in December.
Mike Deehan/WGBH News

Tackling mandatory minimum sentencing, solitary confinement, and overcriminalization are key next steps for criminal justice reform. Right now, a host of bills pending on Beacon Hill would target these issues. A few bills are aimed at overcriminalization and would empower the police to issue a citation for some misdemeanors in lieu of compulsory arrests or increase the minimum property value that would trigger a felony larceny charge from $250 to $1500.  There are also legislative efforts underway to limit the duration of solitary confinement, ensure a greater amount of out-of-cell time and access to mental health services for those subjected to that punishment, and divert vulnerable populations from segregation.

The proposals geared toward front-end reforms and conditions of confinement are just as important as the plan made public this week to diminish recidivism on the back end. The question is not whether extensive criminal justice reform is desirable, but rather whether our governor and legislators have the political will to make it a reality. I hope this week’s announcement is the first of a multi-step march toward comprehensive criminal justice reform in Massachusetts this year.

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