Criminal Justice Reform Just Might Have a New Champion

Juliette Kayyem may not be rocking the polls, but she has some ideas about fixing the state’s criminal justice system. The good news is that she's not thinking about making prisoners bust rocks.

Democrat hopeful for Governor Juliette Kayyem does not have all the solutions to overhauling the ailing criminal justice system in Massachusetts, but at least she’s put her ideas into a campaign platform. And right now, her ideas for potential reforms seem to be the only ones out there in the gubernatorial race.

Attorney General Martha Coakley has thrown crumbs toward over-incarceration and mandatory minimums, and Joe Avellone wants his administration to “better target those most likely to offend.” The others—Dems Steve Grossman and Don Berwick, as well as Republican Charlie Baker—have not released position statements on these issues.

Earlier this month, Kayyem revealed “Reforming the Criminal Justice System” on her website, borrowing from the March 2013 MassINC report titled “Crime, Cost and Consequences.” She’s troubled by the state’s overly harsh policies as well as the money we’ll spend in the next decade without policy changes: due to the so-called “drug war,” incarceration for drug crimes has skyrocketed, and since 1990, our lengthy incarcerations have cost us a staggering $1.5 billion. Her main planks include making the state’s criminal justice system “more evidence-based and less wasteful,” “more rehabilitative and less purely punitive,” and more focused on transitioning ex-prisoners back into society—“rather than ignoring their problems once they leave a correctional facility.”

One of her ideas is a plan to “launch a multi-pronged Criminal Justice Task Force empowered with real authority to partner with every level of government and the community.” In other words, she wants a body she appoints to pinpoint what practices have worked in other states as well as in our own, including an across-the-board cost analysis.

Some might roll their eyes when they read that proposal—what, do we need another task force? The state currently has a Special Commission to Study the Criminal Justice System, which is tasked primarily with reporting back to the Legislature with ways to improve the system. But that means we then have to wait for the Legislature to make new or adapt old laws, and too often, that often takes lengthy amounts of time or, unfortunately, sometimes it means that they do nothing.

“I want evidence to empower my agenda,” Kayyem said in an interview. “I want this task force to answer to me. I want to own this.” She plans to use a team of advisers to further and strengthen her goals. It’s a worthy ideal, but show me the money.

On the phone, she said that we have to be “creative” on these issues, and to that end, advocates for “Justice Reinvestment” where states supposedly “reaped significant qualitative benefits and cost savings.” Her website cites Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas. But Kayyem might want to look more closely at this controversial strategy since some of the nation’s leading criminal justice advocates and researchers have charged that it “has failed to divert meaningful funds to minority communities who have been the most deeply affected by high levels of incarceration.”

What brings Kayyem to these issues aren’t her advisers—campaign communications director Matt Patton said some are in the current administration and others not so much—but her strong advocacy for civil rights. “When I was in law school, I was with prison legal services at Harvard, and I did parole representation,” Kayyem said. “There, I got an understanding of systemic challenges and saw the needs of our inmate population.” She spent her first summer working for Bryan A. Stevenson, a civil rights attorney and the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama—and this was her introduction into the mire of criminal justice issues.

If Kayyem truly wants to ensure prison is effective, to reduce recidivism, and insist on measurements that work, maybe she’ll take a shot at our beleaguered parole system that Deval Patrick set out to improve in 2011 and has only made worse. Kayyem admits it needs attention but her only mention in the plan is to “decrease lengthy incarceration for technical violators.” Parole has become increasingly important in the national discussion as research has shown that with good supervision and support it saves us money and makes us safer.

While I’d give Kayyem’s platform a B+ so far, it’s certainly not grade inflation—it may simply be easy to rise to the top on any issue when you’re standing alone in a classroom. Considering her competitors (or lack thereof), she could easily earn an A.