Gants launches study of racial disparities in incarceration

Chief justice also "encouraged" by progress on wider criminal justice policy review

Gants launches study of racial disparities in incarceration

THE STATE MUST confront racial disparities in imprisonment rates and move to “reimagine” a flawed criminal justice system to focus less on incarceration and more on lowering recidivism, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants said on Thursday.

Delivering his third annual address on the state of the judiciary since becoming the Commonwealth’s top judge, Gants announced that Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow has agreed to helm an independent research team examining racial and ethnic disparities in incarceration rates, which are greater in Massachusetts than in the country as a whole.

Gants said that while the incarceration rate for blacks nationally in 2014 was 5.8 times greater than for whites, in Massachusetts that rate was 8 times greater for blacks than whites. For Hispanics, he said, the incarceration rate nationally was 1.3 times greater than for whites, but nearly 4.9 times greater in Massachusetts.

“We need to find out why,” Gants said to a gathering sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Association that included judges, lawyers, and legislators at the John Adams Courthouse.

He said the court system would provide Minow and her research team with any data they need for their review. “We need to learn the truth behind this troubling disparity and, once we learn it, we need the courage and the commitment to handle the truth,” Gants said.

Gants also hailed an ongoing review of criminal justice policy being led by the Council of State Governments, calling it a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine a flawed system and to enact constructive reform.”

The review was initiated in August 2015 at the invitation of Gants, Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo. The Council of State Governments has carried out such reviews in more than two dozen states as part of efforts to reduce corrections costs while also improving public safety through strategies aimed at lowering recidivism rates.

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