Massachusetts Has a Terribly Outdated Criminal Justice System

Why are we spending more money and locking up more people as crime drops?

Police crime scene

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Ever since Michael Dukakis saw his presidential campaign torpedoed over the furlough of convicted murderer Willie Horton, Massachusetts politicians have erred on the side of being tough on crime, pushing for mandatory minimum sentencing and tough parole boards. The result? Despite a dramatic drop in crime, the state is locking up more and more people.

Yesterday, think tank MassINC released a powerful study title “Crime, Cost, and Consequences: Is it Time to Get Smart on Crime?” which explores the data and expenses behind criminal justice policy in Massachusetts. As compared with the 1980s, we now have three times the number of people in prison and jail, are locking up inmates for one-third longer sentences, spending a lot more money on imprisoning drug offenders, and have increased the number of offenders in maximum security facilities by more than 200 percent. And once offenders get out, fewer than one in four receive parole supervision.

Let’s leave aside the monumental costs incurred by the families and communities impacted most by strict sentencing laws, and focus just on the stunning financial cost: $1.2 billion, annually. That’s more than we spend annually on higher education.

Our “tough on crime” stance, though, is not just costing us obscene amounts of money—it’s outdated, having been discarded by many other states, including traditionally conservatives ones such as Georgia, Arkansas, and Kentucky. Even Texas—death-penalty-loving Texas—has changed its policies to reduce recidivism and lower incarceration:

In 2007, the Texas legislature adopted the Justice Reinvestment model after recognizing that the state could not afford a projected $2 billion in new prison construction and operating costs under current policies. Texas invested $241 million in treatment and diversion programs for drug offenders. These investments saved $210 million in the 2008-2009 fiscal biennium and brought about a 4.5 percent decline in the incarceration rate.

If nothing changes in Massachusetts, the report notes, “… the state will spend more than $2 billion over the next decade on corrections policies that produce limited public safety benefit.”

Well then. Clearly, it’s time for Massachusetts to reform our laws, especially the sentencing ones, to better reflect their initial purpose: keeping the public safe. As MassINC points out, stopping prison expansions, overhauling mandatory sentencing requirements, and improving post-release supervision are not just obvious and smart steps for the state to pursue, but they’re financially necessary.