Inequality, criminal justice reform are linked

Incarceration approach is hollowing out the middle class

Sen. Will Brownsberger speaks at Thursday’s State House rally for criminal justice reform legislation.

FOR ALL THE TALK about inequality these days, it’s rare to see policy proposals that could actually make a difference. Politicians of all persuasions rail against the disappearing middle class, and then do very little to find common ground on viable solutions to the problem. The criminal justice reform legislation introduced in the Senate last week is an encouraging exception. While it may seem like a loose connection, make no mistake, our criminal justice system is contributing to the hollowing out of the middle class on three levels.

It begins with individuals directly caught up in the justice system. The tough-on-crime laws Massachusetts adopted in the late-1980s and early-1990s tripled the number of people interacting with the corrections system and made it difficult for them to escape. Nearly all of these people come from the bottom of the income distribution. Their involvement with the corrections system greatly diminishes their odds of climbing the economic ladder, and the negative effects trickle down, holding back their children.

Jefferson Alvarez of the Lowell-based organization UTEC speaks at the State House criminal justice reform rally.

The next level is those living in high-poverty neighborhoods, where formerly incarcerated individuals are concentrated. It may sound counterintuitive, but studies clearly show that high incarceration rates have actually increased crime, destabilized schools, and channeled a sense of hopelessness in urban neighborhoods in Boston and elsewhere. So thousands of residents who aren’t personally connected to the criminal justice system nonetheless have their prospects for achieving the American Dream reduced.

Finally, the fiscal cost of ineffective criminal justice policies weigh down the middle class more broadly. Before Massachusetts adopted these counterproductive laws, the state spent 25 percent more on higher education than corrections. Now correctional facilities take precedence in the state budget, and those enrolling in public colleges are left struggling with tuition, fees, and mounting personal debt.

Ever since Willie Horton, criminal justice policy has been the third rail in Massachusetts politics. But leadership is doing what doesn’t come easy because it’s the right thing to do. On this score, members of both the House and Senate deserve praise, for the Senate reform bill is an amalgam of good ideas generated by lawmakers in both branches.

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Greg Torres

President of MassINC and Publisher of CommonWealth magazine, MassINC

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