Opinion

Opinion | Wayne Budd, Kevin Burke, and Max Stern

A tipping point for criminal justice reform

OPS PHOTO BY david l ryan bw december 30 1991 deerisland boston harbor islands- 19th century house of correction deer island. suffolk county sheriff robert rufo decommission jail closing the front door.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Mark Twain made famous the adage that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.

Over the years, piles of reform proposals on an array of issues have been decided by statistical analyses that could be colored dozens of different ways. But when statistics show that in some parts of the city, residents from nearly every other home on some streets are ending up in jail, the need for wholesale change is irrefutable.

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The detailed but powerfully simple report released this month by the Boston Foundation, the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, and MassINC asks Beacon Hill leaders to examine the failures of current policies from a different angle.

High rates of incarceration in the city’s minority neighborhoods cost millions of dollars and harm communities already struggling with deep poverty and other intractable challenges. A 2014 study demonstrated that many Boston neighborhoods have passed a threshold where imprisoning residents no longer enhances public safety but, rather, creates additional crime. Researchers say a multitude of factors contribute to this “tipping point” effect, but one that stands out is the normalization of incarceration so that it no longer carries stigma.

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The data presented in this new report show how widespread incarceration has become in some areas. Between 2009 and 2015 in Dorchester’s Franklin Field neighborhood, more than one in five men aged 25 to 29 served time in the Suffolk County House of Correction. In Grove Hall, some one in six men in this age group were imprisoned during that period.

High rates of incarceration in these neighborhoods place police in a particularly challenging position. The cycling of individuals in and out of prison strains neighborhood relations and makes it more difficult for residents to police themselves.

When officers respond and make an arrest, the justice system takes over. A host of data collected over the past year by the Council of State Governments, or CSG, has exposed how ill-positioned our corrections agencies are to “correct” problematic behavior. Leaders on Beacon Hill invited the CSG to Massachusetts for an independent look at the criminal justice system’s operation. CSG’s findings provide a better understanding of why Boston’s minority neighborhoods are suffering.

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For the past two decades, like other states across thecountry, Massachusetts responded to sensationalized events with tough-on-crime policies that sent more people to prison and kept them there longer. At the same time, the state cut back on treatment and reentry services that can alleviate underlying problems that lead individuals into criminal activity. Without help, prison simply reinforces criminogenic tendencies, leading these individuals to reoffend.

This costly cycle means Massachusetts now spends far more confining residents in prisons and jails than it does on higher education. Data in this new report bear this out: In 2013, the Commonwealth spent $66 million incarcerating Boston residents in Suffolk County (a figure that does not include the cost of incarcerating Bostonians in other state and county facilities). This sum is a shocking two and a half times larger than the combined funding for Bunker Hill and Roxbury Community College.

When the budget for jailing residents is so far beyond that of educating them, it is evident that some type of criminal justice reform is necessary.

Reform starts with sentencing, in this case immediately repealing ineffective mandatory-minimum sentences that keep judges from considering circumstances that may warrant less time in prison and appropriately sentencing more individuals to proven community-based alternatives to prison. (Incarceration almost always compounds the problem for those with substance-use and mental health conditions, struggling mothers, and misguided young adults; supervising them safely in the community reduces recidivism.)

Smart sentencing reform will produce savings that legislators can reinvest in a more cost-effective manner, reducing overall crime and strengthening communities.

To be clear, crime is not to be ignored or excused, wherever it takes place. Corrections policy is about deploying limited resources to hold perpetrators accountable and to address the root cause of criminal behavior.

When Beacon Hill leaders issue a package of legislative reforms to address the myriad of issues raised by CSG analysts early next year, let’s hope they take a comprehensive approach that strikes the right balance. As the neighborhood maps contained in this new report plainly show, anything less will not do.

Wayne Budd is a former US attorney. Kevin Burke is former state secretary of public safety. Max Stern is past president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. They are cochairs of the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition.
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