The scandal at the state drug lab and the pending release of hundreds, possibly thousands of prisoners, is an uncomfortable reminder of the way we operate our criminal justice system even in the absence of a crisis. Every month, state prisons send about 200 inmates back to the community, half of whom return without supervision. This is particularly startling given that two-thirds of those sent home come directly from either a maximum or a medium security prison.
Research from across the country makes clear that this is a recipe for failure. Without a structured reentry program, hardened criminals revert to a life of crime, creating new victims and more cost. State Department of Correction figures back this up: fully 43 percent of prisoners released are behind bars again within 36 months.
And this is just half of the picture. Massachusetts also has 14 county prisons that let out hundreds of inmates each month. While very little recidivism data exist for this population, all indications suggest the results are equally disappointing.
That’s why the response to the drug lab scandal by Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, Police Commissioner Ed Davis, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, and leaders in corrections, probation and parole deserves credit. The “Emergency Reentry Program” fashioned by this group will send officials and community representatives to every state prison to meet with inmates from Suffolk County before they are released, offering help and letting them know that their activities will be closely monitored.
Assuming sufficient resources are dedicated to this effort, it will provide an effective response to an immediate public safety problem. It could also serve as a model for addressing major flaws in our approach to corrections that existed long before the current crisis.
The revolving door of recidivism is not unique to Massachusetts, but the barriers we’ve built to sustainable reentry single us out. Our repeated attempts over the last 25 years to take a hard line in reaction to sensational crimes have actually undermined public safety by placing more emphasis on imprisonment than rehabilitation. Meanwhile, over the past five years, red states like Tennessee, Texas, and South Carolina have moved to evidence-based approaches including abolishing mandatory sentences for certain offenses, shifting resources to drug treatment and job readiness programs, and moving prisoners into lower levels of security in preparation for release. As a result, they have seen a reduction in cost and a measurable increase in public safety.
Over the last two decades, Massachusetts has gone from holding 15,000 inmates behind bars on any given day to more than 24,000. This dramatic increase occurred during a period in which crime fell sharply. While some may intuitively equate the drop in crime with the tougher sentencing policies and practices that fueled growth in the state’s prison population, the science clearly shows that this is not the case. Rather than reducing recidivism, lengthier stays cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars annually in prison operating costs, diverting resources from programs proven to reduce crime. The end result is ex-prisoners returning to the community destined to fail.
According to the state’s Corrections Master Plan, absent changes in policy, growth in the prison population will necessitate an additional $120 million annually for operations and up to $1 billion to construct facilities to house new inmates
In order to break this costly cycle, we need to reexamine the Commonwealth’s policy on incarceration. For over a year, the non-partisan think tank MassINC has been organizing a group of criminal justice and civic leaders to develop a blue state model for the kind of sentencing and corrections reform already achieved in many red states. The Criminal Justice Coalition will take on the issues with research, policy analysis, and public education.
The new coalition seeks to correct a number of existing problems including: an overreliance on incarceration; significant barriers to effective prisoner reentry such as mandatory minimum sentencing; and the fragmentation of criminal justice functions across branches of government, especially those involving the supervision of offenders in the community.
Our hope is that Boston’s thoughtful approach to an unplanned predicament will become not just a model, but a stepping stone toward a set of long overdue programs and reforms that will finally slow the revolving doors on our state prisons, saving the taxpayers money, and most important, enhancing public safety.
Wayne Budd is a former US attorney. Kevin Burke is former secretary of public safety. Max Stern is president of the Mass. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. They chair The Criminal Justice Coalition.