A new report found that Massachusetts’ incarcerated population has fallen by half in the last decade. But incarceration rates fell much more for white people than for Black people, and the rate for Latino people is trending upwards. As a result, racial disparities have increased.
This week’s guests on Basic Black celebrated that decline, but also raised the alarm about the widening gap.
“This is a positive step. Reform works. But we will not fully recognize the promise of criminal justice reform until we deal with those persistent racial disparities,” said Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice.
Issued Wednesday by Boston Indicators and MassINC, the report examined what’s changed since the passage of two wide-reaching criminal justice reform laws in Massachusetts in 2018 — which, for instance, eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for some non-violent offenses.
The laws also called for improved data collection, and Smith praised the new transparency.
“For a long time, there was a great deal of opacity in Massachusetts, where we didn't have this type of data — not just on the system overall, but really looking at how the system treats people by race,” Smith said. “This data ... is the receipts that the reform that we all fought for worked, and we need to continue on the same path.”
But, advocates agreed, there is more work to be done.
“One of the main purposes of this [legislation] was to take some of the savings that came from fewer people being incarcerated and reinvesting it in community,” said Rahsaan Hall, president & CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.
While he says the state distributed some funds through programs like the Safe & Successful Youth Initiative, “those tend to be more law enforcement-oriented and associated programs,” Hall said. “If you give people money to address the problems that they know they have themselves, we’ll get far better outcomes.”
Many of the guests also pointed to positive signs in the report: that it finds decarceration is not the public safety threat that some believe it to be. Even as incarceration rates fell, violent crime fell with it over the last decade, with a slight bump in 2022, the report shows.
Smith sees more opportunities to address individuals’ needs before pulling them into the criminal justice system. Even then, Smith says, he would like to see more young adults kept in the juvenile justice system, where he says there’s better access to education and counseling services.
“Those recidivism rates cut in half” when compared to 18- to 20-year-olds who enter the adult criminal justice system, said Smith.
Sophia Hall, the deputy litigation director of Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston, said that reform requires a deep culture shift.
“Five years from now, if we do the work, we may actually be at the core causes of what causes these numbers. That’s what this bill was intended to do,” she said.
Radha Natarajan, executive director of the New England Innocence Project, pointed to one salient statistic from the newly released report: Black people in Massachusetts are now seven times more likely to be incarcerated than white people.
It reminded her of another statistic at the national level, that Black people are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of serious crimes.
“These racial disparities go throughout the system — whether you’re innocent, whether you’re guilty. It’s more about who you are than what you do,” she said.
While collecting and sharing data is important, Sophia Hall says it’s only the beginning of system reform.
“Do we really believe in second chances in Massachusetts?” she asked. “If we do, then we have to build in better systems and better resources for what happens after individuals are released from jail and before they ever enter that system.”