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Criminal Justice Reform
[ index ]
FY2012 House 1 Budget Recommendation:
Issues in Brief
Deval L. Patrick, Governor
Timothy P. Murray, Lt. Governor
Criminal justice reform is essential to both enhancing public safety and to the Commonwealth’s sound fiscal management. States across the country are re-examining sentencing and corrections policy to manage under constrained operating budgets, and Massachusetts cannot afford to be an exception.
Current policy and practice has led to overcrowded prisons, has done nothing to reduce recidivism, and will ultimately jeopardize public safety. The Corrections Master Plan commissioned by the Patrick-Murray Administration projects an inmate bed shortage of 8,000 by 2020. Each cell costs $100,000 to build and each offender costs $47,000 per year to hold in custody. Thus, without any policy and legislative changes to reverse current trends, capital costs to build facilities to meet this demand skyrocket towards $800,000,000 and corrections operating budgets increase by $376,000,000. If the Commonwealth committed those kinds of resources to this problem, its ability to meet other critical missions and services would be severely compromised.
The Governor proposes extensive reforms throughout the entire system that incorporate best practices and well-documented research in the field of criminal justice. The Governor’s initiatives will:
- make our communities safer;
- ensure that all released offenders are supervised;
- reduce recidivism (repeat criminal activity) by improving the re-entry of offenders into society; and
- reduce escalating corrections costs
Sentencing reform is a sound first step toward reforming the criminal justice system. The Governor proposes to toughen criminal sentences for repeat violent offenders while repealing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes. This smarter approach improves public safety, prioritizing limited public dollars and prison cells for habitual violent offenders.
Over the last 30 years, many states, including Massachusetts, enacted mandatory minimum sentencing policies, laws that require automatic prison terms, particularly as a tactic in the so-called “War on Drugs,” which has proven to be an unsuccessful policy. Mandatory minimum sentences deprive judges of the ability to determine the appropriate sentence based on the facts of the case and the offender’s criminal history. These policies often result in harsher and lengthier sentences, contribute to skyrocketing incarceration costs, and contribute to racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
The Governor proposes an overhaul of the Commonwealth’s sentencing laws. Major components of this year’s sentencing reform bills propose to:
- Require courts to impose a specific minimum sentence for those sentenced to life. Under current law, anyone sentenced to life becomes eligible for parole after serving 15 years. The Governor does not propose to change the law for individuals convicted of first degree murder who are never eligible for parole.
- Stiffen penalties for habitual violent offenders. If an individual has two prior violent felony convictions and is convicted of a third felony, he or she would receive the maximum sentence for the third felony. The current law permits habitual offenders to be eligible for parole after serving one-half of the maximum sentence. The Governor seeks to deny parole eligibility for habitual offenders until two-thirds of the maximum sentence has been served.
- Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for all drug crimes (Chapter 94C of the General Laws), except where the offender uses, carries or visibly possesses a handgun during the commission of drug crime or when the crime involves children. For state inmates currently serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, the Administration proposes parole eligibility after they serve 1/2 of their maximum sentence, which is consistent with current state law for county inmates.
The sentencing reform legislation is a vital tool to manage prison overcrowding rates. It will permit the movement of inmates, as appropriate, to lower levels of security and community supervision, thereby relieving additional overcrowding pressure that would otherwise result from prison closures and increasing recidivism. Decades of research, as summarized in the Massachusetts Bar Association’s recent report, “The Failure of the War on Drugs: Charting a New Course for the Commonwealth,” shows that, on the whole, corrections dollars are most effectively spent on supervised release rather than incarceration, and that low-level, non-violent offenders benefit far more, and re-offend less, from treatment and programs as opposed to time spent in prison. Sentencing reform legislation will not only improve public safety, but also result in substantial future year savings of millions of dollars by shortening sentences and permitting the use of electronic monitoring and other less costly and more effective forms of supervision.
Mandating Post-Supervision Release for All Inmates
Approximately 95 percent of prisoners nationwide are eventually released back into society. Therefore, to promote public safety, the Governor proposes mandatory post-release supervision of all inmates released from the Commonwealth’s state prisons.
Offender supervision can range from daily meetings with a parole or probation officer to electronic bracelet monitoring to 24-hour GPS monitoring. Offender supervision includes a comprehensive case plan that:
- Fosters stability in the community;
- Ensures monitoring by a case officer and tools such as electronic bracelets or GPS;
- Increases accountability through sanctions, including re-incarceration for the most serious violations of release conditions; and,
- Offers re-entry services, such as job training, substance abuse treatment and education that can turn ex-offenders into working and productive members of society.
A wide variety of research confirms the public safety benefits of this approach. For example, a Parole Board study of inmates released in 2006 concluded that individuals who were returned to the community after being released from state and county correctional institutions without parole supervision were twice as likely to be re-incarcerated[i] after 18 months than those who had completed their term of parole supervision that same year.
Through the mandatory supervision of all inmates, whether inmates complete sentences or are granted discretionary parole, the Commonwealth will:
- Improve public safety by reducing the rate of new crimes committed by released offenders;
- Increase opportunities for offenders to more effectively transition to the community with strong monitoring, accountability, and support, in appropriate situations;
- Mitigate prison overcrowding and reduce the need for the Commonwealth to build new facilities, at a cost of $60-$80 million each; and,
- Reduce the threat of federal lawsuits as experienced in other states, such as California, resulting in costly settlement agreements and sanctions including federally imposed early release of inmates.
Establishing the New Department of Re-entry and Community Supervision
The Governor seeks to restore confidence in both the Department of Probation and the Parole Board by consolidating both departments under a new executive branch agency, the Department of Re-entry and Community Supervision. This new agency will supervise all forms of community supervision from defendants in early pretrial stages of the criminal process to inmates released after incarceration.
This unified approach will improve public safety by reducing rates of recidivism, establishing a clear offender accountability mechanism, and save millions of dollars in incarceration costs. The consolidation of community supervision into one coherent organization, with shared services and information, will be more efficient, dependable, and less costly to administer. Furthermore, having all correctional, supervision and re-entry responsibilities fall under the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security in the executive branch (as it is in the majority of states) creates a seamless system of public safety. First-time and low-risk offenders would continue to be supervised, as they are now, in the community as an alternative to incarceration (traditional probation). Others will be sentenced to serve terms in the county or state correctional facilities and released through discretionary parole or receive mandatory supervision at the end of their sentence to serve terms of supervision in the community post-prison under the auspices of one oversight administration. This model also creates increased transparency and accountability to the public and Legislature.
The fragmented structure of the existing criminal justice system in Massachusetts has been highlighted as a central factor in the denial of several federal grants, including past applications for the Second Chance Act Prison Re-entry Initiative and the Transition from Prison to Community. This has resulted in the potential loss of millions of federal grant dollars and technical assistance.
Cost savings will be realized in several areas, including merging and consolidating the 21 community correction centers and 8 parole regional re-entry centers that duplicate services. To realize savings while improving services, the Commonwealth can:
- Cancel and merge leases, reducing infrastructure costs;
- Consolidate and reduce underutilized (Community Correction Center) services;
- Eliminate the instances of dual supervision by two different agencies;
- Streamline the multiple drug testing contracts utilized by different agencies; and,
- Better utilize the Community Service program, a program that puts indigent ex offenders to work.
The Governor’s H.1 budget proposes to fund the new Department of Re-entry and Community Supervision at $114.7 million. The adult probation and parole functions and associated funding will be transferred to the new department. The probation functions and associated funding of the Juvenile Court as well as the Probate and Family Court will remain within the Judiciary. The Governor’s H.1 proposal assumes savings due to recent reports of overstaffing and mismanagement of the Department of Probation.
These reforms are long overdue. As far back as 2002, MassInc noted in its report From Cell to Street that Massachusetts had a bifurcated system that was inefficient and redundant, and concluded that a single agency should have both the authority and responsibility to supervise released inmates. The report recommends that agency should be under the Executive Branch, as it is in most states. [ii]
Indigent Defense Reform
The Governor will generate $45M in savings by overhauling the Commonwealth’s system for providing criminal defense for indigent persons. The Governor’s recommendation discontinues the use of privately contracted attorneys in favor of salaried public employees. See Issues in Brief, titled Indigent Defense Reform.
Meaningful criminal justice reform has been slow in coming to Massachusetts. Last year, the Legislature took important first steps by enacting CORI reform, permitting the sheriffs to use electronic monitoring for pre-trial detention, and providing for parole eligibility for mandatory minimum sentences to the houses of correction for drug crimes. The current fiscal crisis makes it all the more important to continue to enact sentencing reform, both to improve public safety and to prevent unsustainable and ineffective corrections costs.
[i] Massachusetts Parole Board (2009). Research Brief- A Comparison of Recidivism Rates For Offenders Discharging from an Institution versus Parole Supervision in 2006.
[ii] Piehl, Anne (2002). From Cell to Street: A Plan to Supervise Inmates After Release. Boston: MassInc. (The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth).
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