Multiple and competing proposals to reform criminal justice in Massachusetts have taken center stage over the past few months, prodded by a set of recommendations from the Council of State Governments in response to a legislative request for guidance.
The need for reform, if not transformational rethinking, is abundantly clear. Being poor or a racial minority dramatically increases your chances of encountering the criminal justice system while, to add insult to injury, your chances of justice being done decrease. Blacks and Latinos are arrested at a much higher rate than whites and then are more likely to be convicted and sentenced. In prisons, investments in education and training for re-entry into society are low, contributing to a high rate of recidivism. Our policies speak more to punishment and retribution than crime prevention and rehabilitation. Looking beyond concerns over the ethics of our criminal justice system, the cost is high and the public safety results are at best questionable.
I served on the Criminal Justice Committee in my first term, twenty- three years ago. Late in that term, a special commission recommended a major reform – eliminating mandatory minimum sentences. Mandatory minimums establish (by legislation) a minimum jail term for different offenses. They have their origin in the “lock them up and throw away the key” mentality that was all the rage some decades ago and that still holds sway in some quarters. They rob judges of the discretion they are supposed to exercise and, twenty years ago, the commission recommended their elimination. Yet in the years since then, not only have they not been eliminated, the severity of sentences and the list of offenses subject to minimum mandatories have grown.
They should be repealed, with the single exception of convictions for first degree murder for which lifetime imprisonment is far better punishment than the death penalty which, happily, we ended in this state during my first term.
Beyond this, solitary confinement has been shown to be form of torture, especially for youthful offenders. This all-too-common practice should be limited in scope and duration to those cases where it is necessary for reasons of safety.
All too often excessive bail and fee (probation, parole, etc.) requirements mean that the poor languish in jail, both before trial and after conviction while those with money are released. This is justice for the wealthier among us, but not for those guilty of being poor. We should be basing our bail assessments on degree of dangerousness and risk of flight, as well as accounting for ability to pay.
Criminal justice begins with crime prevention and concern for those whose circumstances lead to a life of crime. Make no mistake, there are some genuinely bad people around. But there are many more who steal to pay for a drug habit and should be treated for their addition to addressing the underlying cause of the theft. Investments in our schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, drug rehab programs and mental health services have been shown to be far cheaper and far more humane than the law enforcement personnel, courts and jails that are the inevitable consequence of our failure to make those investments.
Some more enlightened communities have been experimenting with what is called restorative justice, a structured process that brings victims of a crime and the perpetrator together in search of a mutual understanding, apology, and some form of payment of the debt to society, if not to the victim(s). Rather than the adversarial nature of judicial proceedings, restorative justice encourages coming together to heal and be healed.
These are some of the thoughts that will guide me as I evaluate the bill or bills that come to the House floor later in this session. I’d welcome your thoughts (firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-722-2320) on these and the many other criminal justice reform ideas that have been swirling about. I’m frustrated that it has taken so long to finally put these critical policy questions on the table, but now I’m hoping we keep them there long enough to do some of the good and important system-altering work that we need to do.