But tackling these issues would require bold initiative and sustained commitment, neither virtue a hallmark of the Patrick administration or the Massachusetts Legislature. “Reentry” has long been no more than a slogan in the commonwealth. No matter how often you repeat it, nobody’s going to mistake the word for action. That’s why Harold Clarke is no longer the corrections commissioner. Frustrated and pragmatic, he resigned just before last November’s election, decamping to Virginia, where a conservative governor with a much larger prison population is open to reforms that cannot even get a serious hearing in “liberal” Massachusetts.
In fairness, Patrick did throw his support behind criminal records reform, signing legislation to balance the need of employers to know about serious prior convictions and the right of offenders to job-hunt without being defined indefinitely by their past mistakes. But he has punted on the need for more-flexible sentencing practices, better prison rehabilitation services, and more coordination among those who run the state’s prisons and those who supervise offenders in the community.
Deteriorating prison conditions have revived calls for a permanent independent panel to oversee the Department of Correction, a proposal Harshbarger made in 2004 and that has been introduced as legislation regularly by a small band of lonely liberals led by Representative Kay Khan, a Democrat from Newton. After Clarke’s resignation, Pastor William E. Dickerson II, Reverend Emanuel Hutcherson, and Minister Don Muhammad took to the pages of The Bay State Banner to appeal for just such transparency. “We hope that the next commissioner will be a reformer and even welcome an oversight committee,” the ministers wrote. “There are resourceful ways in the midst of budget cuts that we can give of our time and talents to fight against the high rates of incarceration and recidivism.”
NOT WITHOUT POLITICAL leadership, there aren’t. Even Harshbarger acknowledges that no number of commission chairmanships can make up for the lack of political attention this issue has received for decades on Beacon Hill — attention that is easily diverted by the kinds of sensational headlines and political posturing that followed the shooting death in late December of a Woburn police officer, killed in a shootout with a career criminal who had been granted parole two years ago.
Not surprisingly, Harshbarger thinks this time will be different. “My view is that this time something will change. It is going to be more than just moving boxes around,” he says, seeing “a perfect storm” in the collision of public outrage about patronage and the tug of war between the judiciary and the governor for jurisdiction over probation. “This time, we have everyone’s attention.”
I’d like to believe him, but I know how fickle we are in Massachusetts. Our attention span is so short. Scott Harshbarger is the backup boyfriend, the one we call when some feckless beau drives us into a ditch. After he hauls us out of the muck, we always leave him by the side of the road.