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Yvonne Abraham

Correcting corrections

When it comes to crime and prisons, it’s time we in Massachusetts listened to a tough-minded conservative politician from Texas.

You read that right. Jerry Madden, a legislator from Plano, has many right-wing boxes checked - he has a perfect prolife rating, is a fan of home schooling, and supports voter ID laws. He is not my cup of tea, until he starts talking criminal justice. Then he simply makes beautiful sense.

Before his House speaker made him chairman of the criminal justice committee in 2005, Madden hadn’t given much thought to the state’s overcrowded prison system.

The state needed more prisons to house the swelling inmate population, but the speaker didn’t want new prisons: “They cost too much,’’ he said. This meant Madden had to slow the flood into state prisons. Not because his heart bled for them, but because they cost too much.


“I’m an engineer, so I started looking for facts and figures,’’ Madden said. With John Whitmire, his Democratic counterpart, Madden consulted experts and educated himself on the hard stuff most politicians shun. He learned a big part of the problem was that parolees and probationers were being sent back to prison for minor violations. And that prisons were warehousing addicts and mentally ill inmates better treated on the outside.

Armed with the facts, Madden and Whitmire got the governor and other legislators on board. In 2007, instead of spending $540 million on new prisons, lawmakers approved a $240 million investment in alternative sentencing and treatment programs. They did such a good job selling the plan - as a fiscally responsible approach backed by data - that the public was on board too. “We were really the first who did what you’d call justice reinvestment, using your money wisely in the justice system,’’ Madden said. The reforms have worked. Since 2007, Texas has closed seven juvenile detention facilities and one prison.


Anything for us to learn from that? Only everything. “They looked at the system and said, ‘We can do this cheaper and better,’ ’’ said Molly Baldwin, who heads ROCA, a Chelsea program that tries to keep young men and women who seem headed for prison outside the walls. “That’s a brave thing.’’

Massachusetts is still banging around in the Stone Age when it comes to corrections policy.

State prisons here are at 140 percent capacity. Alleviating overcrowding could cost as much as $2.3 billion, according to a state Corrections Master Plan released in January.

So, what are our leaders doing about it? What they’re not doing is what the man from Plano saw as essential - studying the nuances of the entire system, marshalling evidence, selling the public on their priorities. Instead, they’re trying to hash out a sentencing overhaul that has something for everybody, so nobody gets hammered by voters in an election year.

They seem set to put forth reforms that are piecemeal at best, and self-interested at worst. In addition to mulling relaxed sentences for nonviolent offenders, and with no evidence it will improve safety, they’re considering denying parole to more habitual offenders - a direct reaction to the December 2010 murder of a Woburn police officer by parolee Domenic Cinelli. “What we’re seeing is a lot of old-line criminal justice policy making,’’ said Len Engel, policy adviser with Boston’s Crime and Justice Institute. For years, his outfit has analyzed prison woes and recommending cheaper, more effective solutions all over the country.


But not in Massachusetts. Our guys aren’t thinking hard enough.

Madden will be here on May 2, speaking at ROCA’s annual breakfast. A lot of state officials have been invited to hear him. Let’s hope they tune out the stereotypes, and really listen.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.