Putting our money where our mouth is

The MassCJRC Journal

With the passage of the FY 2019 state budget last week, leaders in the House and Senate once again signaled their commitment to comprehensive criminal justice reform. The sweeping package passed by the Legislature in April with overwhelming bipartisan support will only payoff if we invest in it. In the first state budget post-reform, lawmakers did just that in two important ways.

First, they directed significant new resources to areas where additional spending can increase public safety and save taxpayers money in the long run. With leadership from the House, the FY 2019 budget includes a new $5 million fund to provide residential reentry services for high-risk inmates returning to the community. The House also pushed for significantly more resources for programs that keep individuals struggling with mental illness and substance use disorder out of the criminal justice system when possible. The jail diversion line item (4512-0202) more than doubled from $2 million in FY 2018 to $5 million in FY 2019. The Bureau of Substance Addiction Services also received an additional $3.5 million to open 5 new Recovery Centers (4512-0200), where those struggling with addiction can find much needed support.

The Legislature’s willingness to make these investments is promising; but on its own, this spending would tell us very little. Budget line items often grow when an issue is hot and revenues are rising. The true test will be whether criminal justice reform incrementally lowers correctional expenditure and incrementally increases investment in community-based efforts to prevent crime and treat mental illness and addiction.

On this score, the Senate took a courageous first step by using the FY 2019 budget to create a commission (Section 89) to study correctional spending and recommend new funding formulas for both country correctional agencies and the Department of Correction. This commission will identify like opportunities for both savings and reinvestment.

It is crucial that both branches act with true resolve to get this formula right. Opponents of criminal justice reform are already resorting to the tired rhetoric of the past, calling those who supported this session’s landmark reform package “soft on crime.” Voters are inclined to believe that there is a better way to improve criminal justice—but in order to dispel any lingering doubts, we’ll need to put our money where our mouth is.

Here in Massachusetts

The SJC unanimously finds nothing improper about requiring that a person remain drug-free as a condition of probation.

The Suffolk County DA election features several hopeful reformers in what is the first open race for the position in 16 years. Sheriff Thompkins hosts a debate for the Suffolk County DA candidates at the House of Correction.

Anthony Benedetti and Laurie Guidry argue that Massachusetts needs to overhaul its outdated sex offender laws.

Coleman Nee says study the Valor Act before changing it.

Communities for Restorative Justice celebrates passage of comprehensive criminal justice reform at the Concord District Court.

Other States

What do the data say on how recent reforms in California have affected crime rates?

A year after passing landmark criminal justice legislation, Louisiana reform advocates are concerned by the lack of transparency in funding distribution. Nonetheless, the law has resulted in positive returns thus far, generating a 20 percent decrease in the number of people imprisoned for nonviolent crimes.

Ohio passes legislation expanding access to record-sealing, rehabilitation programs and drug and alcohol treatment for inmates.

In Washington

bipartisan sentencing reform bill sponsored by Senators Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin is gaining traction despite the objections of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions’ opposition has led to internal strife in the DOJ, apparently causing the mid-May resignation of Mark Inch, former director of the Bureau of Prisons. A narrower bill, backed by Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, has passed in the House but has hit opposition in the Senate, with both bills now competing for the approval of President Trump.

From the Media

Alisa Roth, author of the book “Insane,” talks to Fresh Air about mental illness in America’s prisons and jails.

The Boston Globe’s Ideas section explores the connection between criminal law and luck.

The American Conservative argues that right-wing criminal justice reform initiatives need to transition from a “tough-on-crime” outlook to a “smart-on-crime” outlook.

CNN looks into how recent prison reform initiatives in the U.S. have been inspired by radical reforms in Norway.

The Marshall Project argues that the recent merger between prison phone call providers ICS and Securus will diminish competition and raise prices in an already-small market.

From the Researchers

A new report from MDRC looks at the efficacy of next-generation parole practices.

A first-of-its-kind study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals 40 percent of heroin users and 20 percent of those abusing prescription opioids have criminal justice system involvement.

A paper by Adam Gelb for the Harvard Kennedy School argues that current performance indicators used in measuring the success of reform efforts are insufficient.

Pew publishes a summary matrix showing what 35 states have been up to on criminal justice reform. The Urban Institute also has a new scorecard.

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