Don't Mistake Weak Tea for Coffee: Doing Real Criminal Justice Reform

Governor Baker, along with the Massachusetts House Speaker DeLeo and Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, recently announced “An Act Implementing the Recommendations of the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Review”. Sounds like it will reform criminal justice in Massachusetts, doesn't it? Don't be fooled by the name-it falls far short of true reform. It may even be an attempt to undercut progressive efforts to bring about real change.

The act lets inmates earn time off of their sentences if they participate in educational, vocational or rehabilitation programs, up to a reduction of 35% of the maximum term. Mandatory minimums governing opiates and crimes related to violence, illegal gun possession, or involving a minor are not eligible for sentence reductions. It also expands parole and pretrial services.

To be clear, the act is a good step and should be heartily supported. But we shouldn’t congratulate ourselves too much for taking one step when there are miles left to go.

The bill implements one recommendation of a study on criminal justice reform begun in 2015. The report was envisioned as a comprehensive study of the Commonwealth’s criminal justice system. It was supposed to identify all of its many problems and their causes, and make recommendations how to solve them. Opponents of change would no longer be able to claim, as they had for years, that the problems didn't exist or that we didn't understand the causes. Under its original scope, it would look at how people got entangled in the justice system, how they were treated while incarcerated, and outcomes after they were released. Instead, in an opaque back room process, the focus of the study became on only the last part, namely how to reduce recidivism. The rest was deliberately ignored, perhaps as a tactic to delay further action.

Still, the report made valuable recommendations on how to tackle this important issue, including:

  • sentence reductions for completing anti-recidivism programs and better monitoring of the performance of such programs
  • making the parole process more efficient (it typically takes an outrageous 200 days between being awarded parole and actually getting released)
  • more community supervision and behavioral health care for parolees.

Out of the many recommendations, Baker’s act only implements a few of them.

Reducing recidivism is a worthy goal and absolutely should be supported, but it entirely ignores many other vital issues. Criminal justice in Massachusetts is actually fairly harsh, especially for a state that prides itself on being progressive. Did you know you can lose your driver’s license for many offenses completely unrelated to driving, including failure to appear in court, nonpayment of child support, even graffiti? Did you know you can be held in solitary confinement for up to a decade?

There are many other problems waiting to be addressed: mandatory minimums awarding excessively harsh sentences, the struggle of anyone with a criminal record to get a job, racial profiling, police violence, the school to prison pipeline, overuse of solitary confinement, harsh sentences for juvenile offenders... the list goes on. Surely such a supposedly blue state can do better.

The governor's bill will help with a few issues-it will help lower recidivism, reduce sentences for some prisoners, and by releasing people early it will reduce the prison population and spending on prisons. That's all good, but it isn't enough.

It only deals with people who are already incarcerated. This does nothing to prevent people from entering the system to begin with, and ignores the troubling racial disparities in incarceration rates.

Bottom line, mandatory minimums need to go, and the bill is not a replacement for repeal. The harsher sentences from mandatory minimums mean that more people are in prison than need to be, robbing them of parts of their lives and costing taxpayers extra money. Allowing early release for some inmates still leaves them fully in place for people convicted of some drug offenses and other crimes. Beyond that, mandatory minimums rob judges of the discretion to take mitigating circumstances into consideration. Even the fear of receiving a long sentence because of a mandatory minimum helps prosecutors pressure defendants into accepting harsher sentences than they would otherwise get. This may make the prosecutor’s job easier but it does not serve justice.

Another major sticking point with the bill is the requirement that inmates participate in education and rehabilitation programs to qualify for sentence reductions. There is nothing wrong with this idea, but it depends on programming being available, and such programs are often the first to be cut if there is fiscal tightening. In the long term, funding for such programs will come and go as the political winds shift, and when the funding goes, those minimums will once again trap inmates in prison for longer than necessary.

In addition to the Justice Reinvestment Act, which is a comprehensive reform bill, there are a number of related bills that tackle criminal justice. Together, they will:

  • reduce sentences and remove mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug crimes
  • restore judicial discretion in sentencing
  • increase the use of parole and post release supervision
  • expand educational programming, both within and before prison
  • reduce court fees and prevent someone from going to prison if they can't pay the fees
  • expand the use of treatment for drug related crimes
  • reform juvenile justice
  • limit the use of solitary confinement
  • reduce racial profiling by requiring reporting of data on who the police stop, and why they are stopped
  • require police to wear body cameras 
  • root out the underlying causes of crime by allowing funding for community youth and jobs programs.

That is what true criminal justice reform looks like. Compared to that, the governor's bill is pretty unimpressive.

Instead of doing the hard work of building support for true reform they have simply picked one modest and politically easy measure to wrap up, put a bow on it and say that they given us “Criminal Justice Reform”. Sorry kids, this birthday gift is sure to disappoint. Let's keep the pressure on for real reform.

You can learn more by coming to Progressive Watertown’s event next Saturday, May 6, “Why Criminal Justice Reform Matters”. It will feature a panel discussion by one of the sponsors of the Justice Reinvestment Act, Representative Will Brownsberger, the Middlesex County District Attorney Marian Ryan, and other experts.

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