This week, the Massachusetts House passed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill. The House’s efforts followed a vote last month by the Massachusetts Senate, which passed its own version. Both bills are massive, first-in-the-nation efforts to bring more justice to criminal justice reform. Each take multiple approaches to reducing the rates of incarceration in the state, and both emphasize the need to reduce the Commonwealth’s high rate of recidivism. With  three-quarters of those sentenced in criminal courts in the Commonwealth holding prior convictions, and more than two-thirds of those sentenced to state and county prisons  having been incarcerated previously, it is clear that reducing recidivism is crucial to their efforts.

The Senate bill has been widely—and deservedly—praised. The Boston Globe, for instance,  cited its potential as “a national model for preserving public safety while curbing some of the excesses of an overly punitive system.” 

But both bills are missing a key opportunity for reform by largely glossing over the critical role that reentry programs play in reducing recidivism. When evidenced-based reentry programs are utilized,  recidivism rates can decrease anywhere from 10-50 percent. Innovative re-entry programs piloted by public housing authorities in  New Yorkand  Pennsylvania, for example, have seen great success. During a  three-year evaluation of the New York program, just one participant was convicted of a new charge, while four others were arrested for new offenses and four committed technical violations of their parole. Meanwhile, 41 had found a job or maintained employment, 11 had attended employment training and workshops, 12 were receiving training toward certifications, 12 were in school, and 15 enrolled in substance abuse treatment programs.  The recidivism rate of the Pennsylvania program was 22 percent, well below the state recidivism rate of 60 percent—a promising outcome given that every program participant was assessed as being at high-risk for recidivism.

Reentry programs in Massachusetts have seen similar success. In Central Mass., participants in the Worcester Initiative for Supportive Reentry (WISR)  showed better outcomes over a three-year period than a comparison group, including a 47 percent reduction in recidivism. Here at Project Place, which utilizes an integrated, evidenced-based approach that identifies individual barriers to success, and tailors supportive services accordingly, we have a 67 percent job placement rate, a 63 percent job retention rate and a nine percent recidivism rate.

With such promising results, it is surprising that reentry programs have not been a larger part of the discussion around criminal justice reform, particularly since reducing the state’s prison population is one of the goals prioritized by the governor, Senate, and House. Meanwhile, it is concerning that the state has  failed to step in as federal funding for two successful reentry programs in Boston—the Boston Reentry Initiative and Overcoming the Odds—dried up. The city and some nonprofit partners patched together resources to restart the award-winning Boston Reentry Initiative several months after it closed, but it is not operating at full capacity. Lacking such benefactors, Overcoming the Odds has remained shuttered.

Meanwhile, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is trying to plug gaps in the city’s reentry services with the launch of his  Office of Returning Citizens, which aims to provide support for those returning to the community after paying their debts to society. But absent a fully-funded statewide reentry strategy, it’s hard to see how other efforts to reform the criminal justice system won’t simply be overwhelmed by rising rates of recidivism.

As with the state’s landmark education reform law in the 1990s and, more recently, our pioneering health care reform, Massachusetts is on the verge of once again showing the rest of the country how to enact and implement progressive policy reform that improves lives, saves taxpayer dollars, and makes our communities safer. But we won’t succeed if we ignore one of the drivers of incarceration in Massachusetts, which is people coming home from prison with no place to live, no means to support themselves, and significant barriers to solving those problems.

Suzanne Kenney is the executive director of Project Place.