Leaders in both the House and Senate deserve praise for passing comprehensive criminal justice reform bills this fall. The legislature’s accomplishments are a positive departure from how criminal justice policymaking has unfolded in the past; for far too long, Massachusetts made criminal justice law by anecdote, often in response to a single sensational crime.
As documented in a series of eight reports produced by MassINC since 2013, this practice cost us dearly. In total, our studies offered 31 discrete recommendations to address decades of counterproductive policy and improve public safety outcomes. Assuming a bill emerges from conference committee with all of the major pieces intact, the legislature will have acted on two-thirds of these recommendations. This is a clear indication that it has taken a truly comprehensive and evidence-based approach.
While Massachusetts was by no means the first state to pursue comprehensive criminal justice reform, the House and Senate bills will make us a leader. Once again, our legislature is demonstrating that it can provide the nation with new models when it resolves to act on complex issues.
Much work remains to bring about all of the positive change this pending legislation enables: Communities must build capacity to divert individuals from the justice system, particularly if the alternative pathway is behavioral health treatment. Correctional facilities will need to reallocate resources to put in place stronger programs and re-entry services. And producing better outcomes for justice-involved young adults, especially those who have committed violent offenses, will require considerable resolve from law enforcement, prosecutors, community-based organizations, and correctional administrators. Developing data infrastructure and quality standards, a crowning achievement in the House bill, will also be central to the implementation effort.
As we celebrate recent legislative achievements, it is important not to overlook the accomplishments of the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission. Reconstituting the state Sentencing Commission was a major recommendation in MassINC’s 2013 report. For the past three years, the commission worked diligently to update guidelines that hadn’t been modified for over two decades. By embracing evidence-based sentencing, the revamped advisory guidelines issued earlier this month represent a great leap forward in their own right.
Moving into 2018, we’ll be keeping up with all of this activity and supporting efforts across the state to effectively implement new policy. But for now, as we settle in with family for the Thanksgiving break and avoid talk of politics, we can ruminate warmly on what a collection of pragmatic and hardworking leaders in Massachusetts was able to accomplish this fall.