Harsh Reality

They’re just using you, Scott. Again.

THERE’S A LOT MORE RIDING on the outcome of the probation department probe than which branch of government gets oversight of the department when the dust settles from this scandal. About 97 percent of Massachusetts inmates return to their communities. That number should be incentive enough for us to reexamine how we prepare offenders for reentry to society and how we supervise them once they get there. Will the governor and the SJC be as eager to address those complexities as they are to resolve the simple matter of jurisdiction? Will policy ever trump politics in Massachusetts?

The record would make doubters of most men, but Scott Harshbarger is not most men. Leslie Walker, a longtime legal advocate for inmates in the state’s prisons, describes Harshbarger as “a Boy Scout,” lamenting that there aren’t more like him actually running things around here. He is an anomaly in Massachusetts politics, a liberal and an optimist on Beacon Hill, where those labels have long been mutually exclusive — especially when the subject is criminal justice. Public indifference to the plight of prisoners and former inmates has not changed since 1990, when Bill Weld vowed to “reintroduce prisoners to the joys of busting rocks.” Certainly, Governor Deval Patrick has shown no sign that he wakes up mornings worrying about how to stem urban violence or combat prison overcrowding, this despite the fact that the escalating cost of locking people up in this state is every bit the budget-buster as the skyrocketing cost of healthcare.

But political realities do not deter Harshbarger’s reformist impulses now any more than they did in 1998, when he waged a doomed campaign for governor. Leaders of his own Democratic Party mocked him then as a member of the “loony left,” dismissing his record of prosecuting political corruption as no more than the sanctimony of a pastor’s son. (It was never clear whether their disdain sprang from his roots in Pennsylvania or Presbyterianism.)

What he could not achieve from the inside, Harshbarger has tried, mostly in vain, to accomplish from the outside. He’s been an insistent nudge against an apathetic public as unmoved by his calls for campaign finance reform when he was president of Common Cause in Washington, DC, as by his efforts to make prison reform a priority in Massachusetts.

By rights, Harshbarger ought to have an attentive audience this time around. According to a recent report by former Corrections Commissioner Harold Clarke, the prison population in Massachusetts is 140 percent of capacity. The Awaiting Trial Units at Framingham — the state’s prison for women — is at 352 percent. That means that in the third quarter of last year, two units designed to hold 32 women each held, on average, a total of 181 detainees. Despite those numbers, efforts to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes or to loosen guidelines for parole eligibility for nonviolent offenders have gone nowhere on Beacon Hill.

Yes, there are budget constraints in Massachusetts, but they are not the enemy of reform. As a report by the Boston Foundation made clear 14 months ago, other states have proved that beefing up rehabilitation programs and lowering the bar for nonviolent offenders to reenter society not only reduces the rate of recidivism, it also saves money on bloated corrections systems. Lots of it.