MassINC study cites exorbitant cost and significant shortcomings in state’s criminal justice policies

MassINC study cites exorbitant cost and significant shortcomings in state’s criminal justice policies 

Newly-formed Criminal Justice Reform Coalition calls for bold moves such as a moratorium on new prisons to bring Massachusetts into line with other states

Since the early 1980s, the percentage of the Massachusetts population confined in the state’s prisons and jails has tripled pushing the annual budget for corrections to over a billion dollars a year.  A new MassINC study says that, without a change in course, the state will spend more than $2 billion over the next decade on corrections policies that produce limited public safety benefit. 

According to the report, the inmate population has risen even as the state’s overall crime rate has dropped. The explanation can be traced to two factors: sentencing policies and practices that are keeping inmates in jail longer; and inadequate reentry programming that has kept recidivism rates high, a concern from both a cost and public safety perspective.

The rise in corrections spending is not unique to Massachusetts. States across the country increased spending during a “tough on crime” era that replaced judicial discretion with mandatory minimum sentences and filled prisons with drug offenders. Yet, over the last five years, many states, including Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, and Arkansas have taken a different direction.  They are working on eliminating mandatory sentencing and investing in programs proven to reduce recidivism. The results have been impressive, with some states now able to close prisons and reduce corrections spending. Massachusetts has taken some tentative steps toward reform, but it remains wedded to policies heavily weighted toward incarceration.

The report, entitled, “Crime, Cost, and Consequences: Is it Time to Get Smart on Crime?” and a series of recommendations were released by MassINC, Community Resources for Justice, and the newly-formed Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

“This report documents the problems and the potential solutions to what has become a point of reckoning in criminal justice policy in Massachusetts,” said Wayne Budd, former U.S. Attorney and co-chair of the newly-formed Criminal Justice Coalition.  “It is time we joined other states that are investing in what works, rather than spending money on what doesn’t.”     

The Criminal Justice Coalition is also chaired by Kevin Burke, former Secretary of Public Safety, and Max Stern, President of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The report is the first body of work from the Coalition, a diverse group of prosecutors and corrections practitioners, defense lawyers, community organizers, businessmen and women who have found common ground in the need to reform criminal justice policy in Massachusetts. 

The enormous rise in corrections has consequences for other services.  According to the MassINC study, spending on corrections in Massachusetts now exceeds expenditures on higher education.  In (date), the state spent 24% more on higher education than on corrections.  Today, higher education trails corrections by 18%.  

Several factors are driving these higher costs. Sentencing policies have increased prison stays significantly since 1990 and the number of inmates released on parole has plunged dramatically. As a result, more inmates are staying in prison longer, costing taxpayers an additional $150 million a year.

Another factor affecting both cost and public safety is the state’s intractable recidivism rate as poorly supervised offenders cycle in and out of facilities. As the report points out, more than two-thirds of offenders leaving the Department of Correction return to the community directly from maximum and medium security prisons, settings that provide little preparation for life outside of a secure facility. New data indicate six of every 10 inmates leaving state and county prisons commit new crimes within six years of release. The MassINC study indicates Massachusetts would save up to $150 million annually if the recidivism rate was shaved by just 5 percent.

The report’s authors, together with the Coalition, present several recommendations focused mainly on shifting from high-cost, poor performing policies to lower-cost programming options that have been proven effective at reducing recidivism in states throughout the country.  The report also suggests a number of systemic reforms that would address: fragmentation within Corrections; overlapping jurisdiction and lack of clear lines of accountability regarding probation and parole; lack of investment in reentry and supervision programming; and insufficient data on which to direct policy.

“Massachusetts hasn’t revisited its approach to sentencing since the early 1990s yet so much has emerged that we need to take into account,” said Kevin Burke, Coalition co-chair and former Secretary of Public Safety.  “We can hold offenders accountable, and get better at making sure that they don’t commit new crimes and create new victims but it starts with sentencing policies that give inmates returning to the community a real shot at success.”

“Trends such as increased incarceration and the squeezing out of programming has produced conditions of confinement – such as the warehousing of drug offenders and female inmates — that run counter to any positive examples we are seeing elsewhere in the country,” said Max Stern, Coalition co-chair President of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.  

Recommendations include:

  • Placing a moratorium on the expansion of state and county prisons;
  • Reconstituting the Sentencing Commission within the trial court to revisit the state’s approach to sentencing and sanctions;
  • Clearly delineating responsibility for all post-release supervision to the Parole Board and pretrial and diversion to the Probation Department;
  • Expanding the use of community supervision and pre-release for those most likely to reoffend;
  • Making Boston’s Emergency Reentry Program a model for urban centers across the state;
  • Completing an extensive survey of conditions of confinement, programming, and program quality across the system;
  • Standardizing data systems and reporting protocols, and funnel information to a central research center;
About MassINC

MassINC is a nonprofit, independent think tank and publisher of CommonWealth magazine that uses non-partisan research, civic journalism and public forums to stimulate debate and shape public policy. Our mission is to promote a public agenda for the middle class and to help all citizens achieve the American dream.

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