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Fewer prisoners, lower crime

An inmate at MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole.file 2011/Jessey Dearing for The Boston Globe

Twenty years ago, it was a common belief that reducing crime and increasing incarceration went hand in hand. When he was running for governor in 1998, Paul Cellucci told The Globe he was puzzled by a headline that asked “If crime is down, why are the prisons still overcrowded?” To Cellucci, and to many policymakers at the time, the question contained its own answer: Crime was down because the prisons were crowded. Locking up lots of bad guys for a long time was seen as the surest path to crime reduction. Nascent efforts at sentencing reform or alternatives to prison would only make crime worse.

Now a new national report suggests otherwise. The Brennan Center for Justice found that 34 states, across all regions of the country, reduced both their prison populations and their crime rates over the decade between 2007 and 2017. The data “show clearly that reducing mass incarceration does not come at the cost of public safety,” the report concludes.


The state with the steepest declines in both crime (roughly 40 percent) and incarceration (51 percent)? Massachusetts.

This is undeniably good news, but the raw numbers need to be dissected in order to learn the right lessons. As with medical studies, it’s important to control for other factors, such as education, health care, and economic opportunity, which are all related to criminal behavior. Massachusetts has made progress on those indicators too, so the state’s plummeting crime rate can’t all be attributed to new criminal justice philosophies. Some of the sentencing reforms the state has adopted, including those in the comprehensive bill Governor Baker signed in April 2018, are too new to show up in the Brennan Center’s figures.

Still, in many cases the virtuous cycle of lower crime and fewer prisoners is clearly linked to smarter policies: eliminating harsh sentences and focusing police and community resources on a relatively few “high-impact” offenders. In 2006, the state decriminalized the possession of hypodermic needles. In 2012, it reduced the length of mandatory minimum sentences for a raft of drug crimes, including shrinking the size of “drug-free school zones” that imposed enhanced penalties, even for crimes committed well outside school hours.


Ben Forman is research director at the think tank MassINC, which has done pioneering work in criminal justice issues. He points especially to changes in juvenile sentencing as key to both the state’s smaller prison population and lowered crime overall. That’s partly due to what Forman calls the “criminogenic” effects of incarceration: The prison environment itself hardens criminal behaviors and increases the likelihood of recidivism. “We have moved away dramatically from the incarceration of youth,” he says, and towards alternative services and probation. “You prevent the formation of a career criminal.”

Given the dizzying annual cost of incarceration — at least $55,000 per inmate — you would think that state Department of Corrections budgets would be falling along with the prison population. But no: MassINC found that combined prison and sheriff department budgets have increased 25 percent since 2011.

Forman and other advocates want to see not just criminal justice reform, but reinvestment. One example: The current fiscal year budget includes $25 million for community corrections centers operated by the once-tarnished department of probation. With new leadership, these 18 centers are now offering intensive services from education and employment counseling to behavioral therapy, substance abuse treatment, and domestic violence prevention. Given that 500 people come home from prison every year in the city of Lawrence alone, the need for constructive re-entry programs seems obvious. More, please.


The positive trends outlined in the Brennan Center report are hardly the last word. The United States still has the largest incarcerated population — 1.5 million souls — in the world. Even in Massachusetts, there are still three times as many people in prison as in 1980. But beyond the sheer numbers, what’s encouraging about the Brennan Center’s report is the way it shows that cocksure conventional wisdom can change. It’s taken a generation, but all the hard work of advocates — community policing approaches like Boston’s Safe Neighborhood Initiative, local prison intervention programs like Roca, even books about criminal justice disparities like “The New Jim Crow” — have steadily chipped away at the old lock’ em up verities. We are only now beginning to see the dividends.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.