Another Day, Another Report on Massachusetts’ Botched Prison Policies

MassINC released more findings to add to the pile of reports that are trying to fix the system.

MassINC and Community Resources for Justice (CRJ) released a new report on the state of criminal justice health in Massachusetts. The report points out well-worn zingers such as “A decade ago, higher education surpassed spending on cor¬rections by 25 percent. Today the higher educa¬tion budget is 21 percent lower.”

The report, titled Crime, Cost, and Consequences: Is It Time to Get Smart on Crime?, asks a good question, and it provides some good suggestions for change. But it seems like, year after year, another report comes out that recommends significant change to the system. And it seems that, year after year, we look over our policies, brood over how much money we’re spending, shake our heads at how many people keep returning to prison, and then, just like that, wash our hands and choose not to follow the recommendations.

It’s not the fault of the report’s authors. Benjamin Foreman, of MassINC, and John Larivee, of CRJ, who, supported by a coalition of more than 30 justice advocates and backed by a coalition representing both sides of the aisle, created the 40-page report that focuses on the dire state of Massachusetts prison policies. The report says our prisons are troubling—in spite of declining violent crime rates, costs have soared, our prisons are crammed with too many low-level drug criminals because of mandatory minimums, and we have not done enough to create effective release programs. This statistic says it well: Fewer paroles have increased prison stays by a third since 1990 and caused us an extra $150 million a year.

Massachusetts is in this mess, in part, because, unlike a host of other states, we do not collect hard data or perform “careful cost-benefit analysis” of either proposed or current practices. We stubbornly cling to regressive, ultimately expensive policies that don’t make the state any safer. Plus, we have the mistaken notion that—damn the cost—longer prison sentences and building more prisons will help to reduce crime. The authors assert that “if the recidivism rate was cut by 5 percent, Massachusetts could cut $150 million from its more than $1 billion corrections budget.” The “how” comes in the form of eight recommendations, which include a moratorium on building more prisons, a parole policy that works for parolees and our communities, and the need to rely on our underutilized Sentencing Commission for sentencing reform. In other words, we need to be smart and not dumb on crime policies.

The expression “smart on crime” harkens back to the 1990s, a play on the idea of “tough on crime.” One legislator who used the phrase was former House Rep. Barbara Gardner from Holliston, whose use of the phrase was perhaps a way to abate former Governor William Weld’s “let prisoners bust rocks” mentality. Decades later, it’s clear that being “smart on crime” would be the way to go if suggestions from reports like these would be put into practice by creating policies that reduce crime and incarceration, help prisoners become productive members of society, and make our prisons more than warehouses. In other words, being smart on crime by acting on recommendations that make us a safer and more moral society.

But, with history as our guide, much of this report, like much of many others before it, may go unheeded. The MassINC document cited its own 2002 report, From Cell to Street, stating that we were returning prisoners to the community without adequate supervision—we still need better supervision. In 2002, The Boston Bar Association made the recommendation of adopting a presumptive parole policy to help prisoners get parole and adequate supervision—we have not. The 2004 so-called “Scott Harshbarger Report” urged the state to revise sentencing laws and corrections policies in order to develop a “comprehensive re-entry strategy.” Our re-entry policies still aren’t effective. And the 2009 Massachusetts Bar Association slammed our drug sentencing policies with its Failure of the War on Drugs: Charting a New Course for the Commonwealth. We did create some mandatory minimum reform last year, but many of its recommendations were not followed.

That’s only on the state level. National trends also should have made us sit up and take notice. In the past few years, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), The Sentencing Project, Pew Charitable Trusts and others issued major justice reports such as the ACLU’s Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Communities. We didn’t listen to their recommendations, either.

When will Massachusetts stop producing more critiques and start taking action on the tried, proven policies and practices recommended by our own experts? What we don’t need are more regressive laws like last year’s Three Strikes, certainly not recommended by our nation’s authorities as a way to reduce costs or improve safety. The people who create the reports should take ownership of their words and get legislators moving in the right direction. Let’s see where we are in a year and hope it’s not going backwards or towards another report that blasts us once again.