We attended MassINC’s “Reform, Re-entry and Results: Change and Progress in the Massachusetts Criminal Justice System” at UMass Boston last week, and we were delighted to run into Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey and Court Administrator Harry Spence, along with dozens of criminal justice experts we have worked with in the past. We have long believed that mandatory minimum sentences serve to place an undue burden on our courts. We also know that sending an offender to prison when an alternative sentence would be more appropriate will increase the likelihood that the person will reoffend rather than becoming a self-sustaining member of our community.
Here’s what gave us reason for optimism going forward. A survey conducted by the MassINC Polling Group yielded 6 key findings:
- Massachusetts residents want the criminal justice system to focus on prevention and rehabilitation – two areas where the current system is not seen as effective;
- Two-thirds want reforms that result in fewer people sent to prison, reversing previous high levels of support for new prisons;
- Residents show little support for mandatory minimum sentencing;
- The public sees drug use as a health problem rather than a crime, and seeks an increased focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration;
- Concerns about supervision cloud pictures of public support ;
- In areas where more inmates are released, residents agree with the broad, pro-reform sentiment of the rest of the state.
As you may know, we have recently written about the Mental Health Court in Plymouth and the Homeless Court at Pine Street, and will in the future be writing about the Drug Court, all initiatives focused on addressing the underlying cause of the offender’s behavior. The goal is to prevent these people from becoming regulars in the criminal justice system. And we applaud the Massachusetts Trial Court for making such specialty courts a priority in its strategic plan.
Criminal justice reform has long been at the heart of the Boston Bar Association’s mission. In 1991, we and the group now known as Community Resources for Justice issued a report saying that “Public safety is not enhanced by speeches to ‘get tough on crime’. . . The superficial appeal of ‘mandatory sentences’ must be resisted in favor of more rational, safe and cost-effective policy-making.” If at times we felt we were swimming against the tide of popular opinion, we have never relented in our efforts to undo what we believe was flawed public policy.
At the same time, we have worked to facilitate re-entry, amid a keen awareness that 97 per cent of incarcerated people will ultimately return to the community. In the public policy space, we released a study on parole practices and community re-integration in 2002, arguing that Massachusetts needs a system of presumptive parole. And we have long advocated for Criminal Offender Record Information reform.
It is from that perspective that we applaud the work of MassINC and look forward to working with others to follow up on their survey with sound public policy reforms.