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Testimony Regarding Comprehensive Criminal Justice Reform In Massachusetts

Provided to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary

June 9, 2015

Benjamin Forman


Thank you Chairman Brownsberger, Chairman Fernandes and members of the committee for an opportunity to share some ideas on comprehensive criminal justice reform at this critical juncture.

It is not often that the plight of people who enter the corrections system captures public attention, but recent events have combined to shine a spotlight on the impact of our justice system on offenders, their families, and the neighborhoods from which they come. For many in our Commonwealth, the criminal justice system has become intertwined with the prospects of reaching the middle class and remaining securely in those ranks. As MassINC’s founding mission is to increase the vitality of the state’s middle class, this problem concerns us deeply.

Last week, MassINC hosted a forum here in Gardner Auditorium with the Brennan Center for Justice. The Brennan Center’s accomplished researchers shared findings from a rigorous new study that shows the move to lengthen prison terms in the US over the past two decades has provided very limited gains in public safety. By their estimates, lengthening prison stays by 30 percent reduced crime by 5 percent in the 1990s and had virtually no impact on crime in the 2000s. While we can’t say for certain how these figures for the country as a whole translate to Massachusetts, the dramatic rise in the Commonwealth’s prison population since the 1980s looks far more like the US trajectory than other advanced democracies, particularly from the vantage point of minority residents.

Given this and other compelling evidence that criminal justice resources could be better invested, MassINC has come to see comprehensive reform as a serious strategy for reversing the hollowing out of the middle class. With spiraling corrections costs crowding out other vital government services, it is not just a matter of providing offenders with a legitimate second chance to participate in our economy. A decade ago, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation issued a warning that we were spending more on corrections than public higher education. At last week’s forum, Mike Widmer reiterated the problem high prison costs pose and noted that structural budgetary challenges aren’t going away, making the diversion of resources to corrections an increasingly heavy obligation.

The bills before the committee this session represent energy within the body for acting creatively and decisively. As the committee takes on the difficult task of turning many good ideas into workable legislation, we urge members to seek a comprehensive approach that includes four components:

1.     A mechanism to facilitate data integration for performance management. Comprehensive criminal justice reform relies on sound data. Policymakers have astoundingly limited ability to get critical information about how the criminal justice operates to inform decisions. Assistance collecting and analyzing data from the Council of State Governments is an important step forward, but it should be paired with an interagency data integration task force that can work alongside the COG team and ensure that the state has an action plan for building the capacity and infrastructure to perform this analysis long-term. Creating a taskforce legislatively would help ensure that it has the structure and mandate to operate effectively.

2.     An end to mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders . Additional data and analysis are not needed to know that eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses is the right thing to do. We have seen from past reforms in Massachusetts that reducing mandatory minimums lowers our prison population without increasing crime. This is confirmed by experiences in other states that have eliminated or reduced mandatory minimums for drug offenses. Given this track record, there is simply no need to maintain sentencing laws that create a heavy risk for imposing unjustifiably lengthy sentences, especially when the data show that this risk is born disproportionately by minority defendants. To be clear, we expect that the vast majority of these offenders will still earn prison time commensurate with their actions; judicial consideration will simply allow for considerations beyond the weight of the substance in determining how justice is best served.

3.     Validated risk assessment for pre-trial and post-release. Managing the growing pre-trial population with a validated risk assessment tool would reduce the expense of holding defendants who do not pose a significant risk. A move toward risk assessment at pretrial would also help lower the collateral costs for those involved with the criminal justice system, particularly women held in Framingham far from their families, attorneys, and physicians.

Similarly, using risk assessments to make decisions about post-release supervision would put an end to the practice of having the most dangerous offenders complete their sentences and return to the community without supervision; or alternatively, allocating limited supervision resources inefficiently to those who are very unlikely to reoffend.

4.     Treatment and re-entry services. MassINC estimates the cost to Massachusetts of lengthening prison terms has been approximately $150 million annually. Reallocating some of these taxpayer dollars to treatment would go a long way toward ensuring that those with mental health and substance abuse disorders are better served in our Commonwealth. Reallocating some of these taxpayer dollars to re-entry will reduce the costs of recidivism and give offenders returning to our communities a greater likelihood of participating productively in our economy.While the savings from reducing the prison population will not be immediate or large enough to provide the optimal level of investment in services, the state is well positioned to build on its early experimentation with Pay for Success to find creative ways to invest in proven treatment and re-entry models.

I thank you again for the opportunity to testify and conclude with one piece of polling data that confirms the mandate legislators have from voters: A 2014 MassINC poll shows a vast majority of Massachusetts residents—85 percent in representative sample—support a comprehensive corrections reform agenda that includes a focus on rehabilitation, reduced sentences for non-violent criminals and drug users, judicial discretion instead of mandatory minimum sentencing, and better use of post-release supervision. We appreciate the complexities involved in passing legislation that meets the vision voters have for a comprehensive approach that reduces the prison population and enhances public safety, and hope that we can be a resource to the committee as you work through these challenging issues.

Press inquiries please contact Winthrop Roosevelt at or 617-224-1625. 

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