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Top state officials seek review of criminal justice system

With an eye toward trimming prison and jail populations and reducing recidivism, the top officials in Massachusetts government are asking for an independent review of the state's criminal justice system.

Governor Charlie Baker, Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, and Ralph D. Gants, the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, sent a letter to the US Department of Justice and the Pew Charitable Trusts, requesting help crunching state data and seeking policy recommendations to get the best public safety outcomes for each dollar spent.

The Council of State Governments, a nonprofit group that aids state officials in crafting public policy, is set to conduct the analysis and the Justice Department and Pew are poised to fund the effort, which has received conditional approval. Officials expect the study to take up to nine months before policy recommendations are delivered.

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Many other states have already engaged in similar analysis — what's billed as a "justice reinvestment" approach — and, as a result, worked to cut some criminal justice costs and use that money to improve outcomes, for example, reducing the number of people coming out of incarceration who end up back in the criminal justice system.

Marc Pelka, deputy director of state initiatives at the Council's Justice Center, said the group is expecting to do a deep dive on tens of thousands of records, including those about crime and arrests, prison populations, and parole decisions.

"It's a soup-to-nuts analysis that we'll be carrying out," Pelka said, emphasizing it would take a hard look at information — "everything under the sun" — from across the whole criminal justice system in Massachusetts. And, he said, there would be about four full-time analysts, traveling in and out of the state, cranking away on the effort.

"It's a nonpartisan, data-driven process not influenced by anecdotes or perceptions about the criminal justice system," Pelka said. He said policy makers could expect recommendations that, if implemented, could "generate savings that could be plowed into public safety priorities" from helping people struggling with drug addiction to grants to local police departments.

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The letter requesting the review is notably bipartisan and represents all three branches of state government — Baker is a Republican, the legislative leaders are Democrats, and Gants was appointed to his current post by former governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat.

But Senate leaders, including Rosenberg, have been particularly vocal in pressing for big changes to the state's criminal justice system, including consideration of a repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.

Asked whether this effort paves the way for a major criminal justice overhaul in Massachusetts, Rosenberg said in a telephone interview, "It should pave the way for change. How major it is will depend upon what the data and the analysis shows."

But, the Senate president said, all efforts at reform will not necessarily wait until after the report is issued. One example he gave of legislation that could move sooner: ending the practice of taking away driver's licenses from some people convicted of nondriving-related drug crimes — with an eye toward making it easier for them to get jobs after they have served their time.

The letter from Massachusetts leaders, dated July 30, notes that the state has one of the lowest per capita rates of incarceration in the United States and has seen an overall decline in prison and jail population in the past decade. But, it says, "despite this success in reducing the overall rate of incarceration, our three-year recidivism rate has remained at approximately 40 percent for a number of years."

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It asks for help in developing policy options, including enabling "successful reentry" for people coming back into their communities from time spent in prison and jail. And the letter asks to help policy makers understand whether they can reduce prison and jail populations through an early release program "while ensuring appropriate punishment and preserving public safety."

Baker said in a news release that he looks forward to the effort bringing "new ideas to the table to reduce recidivism and improve our criminal justice system."

Attorney General Maura Healey also applauded the effort in a separate statement.

Carl Williams, staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts, said it's great that this effort is underway.

And he said his group hopes it will take a look at the way the war on drugs plays out in Massachusetts, the impact that mandatory minimum sentences have on people in the system, and how police practices could be reformed.

Senator William N. Brownsberger, Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, said the request is a solid effort to get more data in an area where the state needs to make progress, "which is how do we get people safely back out onto the street in a way they can succeed and not return to being incarcerated."

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The Belmont Democrat said the state's recidivism rate is not bad relative to other states. But on an absolute scale, he said, it needs to be reduced.

Serving time in jail or state prison, Brownsberger said, "we want that to be an experience that people only have once" in their lives.


Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.