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Ben Forman testifies before Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary

In support of “An Act For Justice Reinvestment”

Testimony Regarding H.2308/S.791

 “An Act For Justice Reinvestment”

Provided to the Joint Committee on The Judiciary

 June 5, 2017

Benjamin Forman
MassINC

Thank you Chairman Brownsberger and Chairwoman Cronin for this opportunity to provide testimony in support of An Act for Justice Reinvestment on behalf of MassINC and the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.

There are many components of this legislation that we strongly endorse, including the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, which we believe is supported by the preponderance of the evidence, especially a recent study examining federal data and demonstrating that black defendants are nearly twice as likely to be charged under a mandatory minimum statute than white defendants arrested for the same crime. With mandatory minimums, the justice system cannot operate as intended and self-correct; initial charging decisions result in racial disparities at sentencing.[1]

But I would like to focus my remarks this afternoon on the creation of a fund for Justice Reinvestment, the unique aspect of this legislation.

We see the development of such a fund as integral to comprehensive criminal justice reform. In a small number of communities, Massachusetts is spending incredible sums of money incarcerating people. This cannot be overlooked. In fact, this is how the very term Justice Reinvestment originated. In 1999, a worker at a Brooklyn nonprofit named Eric Cadora made maps of the neighborhoods where his organization operated and found there were 35 individual blocks where the state was spending more than a million dollars a year incarcerating residents.[2]

Our maps reveal a similar pattern here in Massachusetts: in Codman Square, $7.5 million a year; in Dudley Square, $4 million a year; in Uphams Corner, $3 million a year. And we only had access to House of Correction data, so these figures exclude the much more costly Department of Correction sentences.[3]

If high levels of incarceration in these neighborhoods were increasing public safety, perhaps these expenditures would be justified, but it’s not working. In recent years, researchers have issued a number of studies demonstrating that urban neighborhoods in the US have reached a tipping point where incarceration is hindering more than it is helping.[4] The largest, most rigorous of these studies examined data from Boston and found that high rates of incarceration were leading to additional crime in the city’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods.[5]

We are currently in the process of mapping data provided by the Worcester County Sheriff. What we have seen so far suggests incarceration is having the same damaging effect on Worcester neighborhoods. The data also reveal strong correlation between high levels of incarceration in school assignment zones and chronic absenteeism and disciplinary suspensions at schools; precincts with high levels of incarceration have much lower voter participation.

This picture is disheartening. Worcester is the stereotypical older industrial city. Tough on crime criminal justice policies that make it that much more difficult to participate in our economy cannot be our response to manufacturing job loss and the resulting social and economic challenges. Gateway Cities like Worcester need us to be smart on crime and spend criminal justice resources well. Ineffective criminal justice policies will wipe out all of the gains we are producing with our far more modest economic development investments.

The report we released last month examining correctional expenditures demonstrates that there is ample opportunity to deploy our limited resources better.[6] Between FY 2011 and FY 2016, the average daily population in the state’s prisons and jails declined by nearly 2,900 inmates; growth in correctional budgets outpaced inflation over this period by $72 million. (State spending per inmate rose 34 percent, while education aid per student increased by only 11 percent and local aid per resident grew just 6 percent.)

If Massachusetts had just invested the variable cost savings that could have been realized by having 2,900 fewer inmates to serve, we could have added 600 treatment beds to our system—a 25 percent increase in treatment capacity. Think about what our choice to not reinvest these funds means for a community like Worcester, where opiates have become a troubling antidote to the pain of lost economic opportunity.

Senator Chang-Diaz and Representative Keefe have provided leadership with this legislation. They have challenged us to find a way to guide those who need help into a true treatment system, intervene on the streets before teens born into neighborhoods plagued by violence and intergenerational incarceration further the cycle, and increase education and training options so adults can build new skills and contribute productively to our community.     

I conclude by offering just one example of such a fund in operation. In 2014, the Colorado legislature created a mechanism to reinvest in community-based organizations. Strong controls are in place to ensure that state dollars are used well. Each community-based organization receiving funds gets technical assistance from a national intermediary and they are held accountable with multiple performance measures embedded in their contracts. This fund has been so successful that they are doubling down on the approach. Pending legislation will reinvest savings from parole reform in community-based, crime-prevention initiatives in two communities with high rates of crime and incarceration.

In Colorado, there is bipartisan support for the notion that comprehensive criminal justice reform means reinvesting in communities. We urge the committee to make a fund for Justice Reinvestment central to our approach here in Massachusetts as well.

 

 


NOTES

[1] Maharit Rehavi and Sonja Starr. “Racial Disparity in Federal Criminal Sentences” Journal of Political Economy 122.6 (2014).

[2] Jennifer Gonnerman. “Million-Dollar Blocks” Village Voice (November 9, 2004).

[3] Benjamin Forman and others. “The Geography of Incarceration” (Boston, MA: MassINC and the Boston Indicators Project, 2016).

[4] See Natasha Frost and Laura Gross. “Coercive Mobility and the Impact of Prison-Cycling on Communities” Crime, Law and Social Change 57.5 (2012); Todd Clear and others. “Coercive Mobility and Crime: A Preliminary Examination of Concentrated Incarceration and Social Disorganization” Justice Quarterly 20.1 (2003); Robert Crutchfield and Gregory Weeks. “The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color: In Poor and Disadvantaged Communities, There May Well Be a Tipping Point at Which Rigorous Crime Policies and Practices Can Do More Harm Than Good” Issues in Science and Technology 32.1 (2015).

[5] Todd Clear and others. “Predicting Crime through Incarceration: The Impact of Rates of Prison Cycling on Rates of Crime in Communities.” Final Report to the National Institute of Justice. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2014).

[6] Benjamin Forman and Michael Widmer. “Getting Tough on Spending: An Examination of Correctional Expenditure in Massachusetts” (Boston, MA: MassINC, 2017).

Meet The Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

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