The Legislature has crafted legislation to address many aspects of criminal justice reform: reducing incarceration by eliminating mandatory minimums and increasing diversion programming, expunging certain juvenile offenses, reducing racial bias in the criminal justice system, creating a medical release program, limiting the use of solitary confinement, and improving incarceration conditions. But the final piece of the continuum — reentry into the community after incarceration — has yet to be fully addressed.
To achieve the real, meaningful criminal justice reform that Massachusetts is striving for, we must address the entire spectrum of the criminal justice process. That means both reducing the number of individuals heading to prison and providing the necessary supports so that men and women coming out of incarceration have a foundation on which to build a new life and never again see the inside of a jail or prison cell.
A recent poll by MassINC found that overwhelming majorities of Bay State voters support providing resources and training to help incarcerated individuals reintegrate back in the community as a way to reduce crime. In particular, 86 percent support doing more to prepare incarcerated individuals for reintegration back into the community, including sending them to residential reentry centers, commonly known as halfway houses.
The good news is that we already have reentry programs in Massachusetts that have proven their worth over decades of helping men and women successfully reintegrate into our communities.
The bad news is that these programs are disappearing. Over the past 18 months, Span, Inc., the McGrath House, and Overcoming the Odds, which provided community-based reentry in Boston, have closed due to funding cuts. The Boston Reentry Initiative has had to dramatically scale back its programming. Now Brooke House, a 53-year-old reentry program in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood which serves up to 65 men, could be next in line to close its doors.
Community-based residential reentry programs provide intensive case management and supervision as individuals make the difficult transition from behind the wall into the community. Often these men and women leave prison without so much as a driver’s license or Social Security card to prove their identity on a job or rental application. At a reentry center, they get help obtaining an ID, finding employment and a permanent place to live, getting career training, rebuilding bonds with relatives, and accessing substance abuse and mental health treatment. A four to six month stay in a halfway house can reduce recidivism by up to 25 percent for individuals considered at high-risk to commit a new offense.
We need to work together to ensure that this safety net remains in place for residents returning to our neighborhoods. Out of a roughly $39 billion state budget, just $90,000 is dedicated to community-based residential reentry — about the same cost to incarcerate two people in state prison for a year. By contrast, Ohio allocated more than $66 million in 2017 for state-contracted halfway houses, Michigan spent more than $13 million, and New Jersey invested $65 million.
More than 3,000 men and women leave Massachusetts prisons each year, with almost none of them first transitioning through a community-based residential reentry program. In 2016, 69 percent of individuals released from Department of Corrections’ custody went directly from a medium or maximum security prison to the community without first passing through a reentry center.
The House Ways and Means budget proposed yesterday would invest $3 million in next year’s budget for community-based residential reentry programs throughout the state. That’s an excellent investment to start making our communities safer, reducing crime, and breaking the cycle of incarceration.
Massachusetts has shown that it’s serious about criminal justice reform. The legislation moving through the State House has support from the governor, legislators, and a broad coalition of community groups and agencies. But it will not be complete unless we invest in this missing piece to provide individuals returning to our communities with the building blocks they need for a better life.State Rep. Byron Rushing is the House Majority Whip and represents parts of the South End and Back Bay in Boston. John Larivee is president and CEO of Community Resources for Justice.