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Editorial

Harsh 1980s laws, meet cautious 2016 politics

(MOHAMED ABDIWAHAB//AFP/Getty Images)

Massachusetts is in danger of taking an overly modest approach to criminal justice reform, missing a great opportunity to bury some of the worst legacies of the “tough-on-crime” era. That much became clear on Wednesday, as an advisory panel presented a list of policy ideas that stopped short of the sweeping sentencing reforms that advocates had been hoping for. But it’s not too late for lawmakers to broaden their ambitions. When the Legislature turns its focus to criminal justice next year, it should treat the ideas as a floor, not a ceiling.

The reform process began in the summer of 2015, when Governor Charlie Baker, Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, and Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court wrote a carefully worded letter to Washington requesting assistance in the development of a criminal justice reform package.

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With that, Massachusetts became the latest in a long line of states to engage in a process known as “justice reinvestment” — poring over data and weighing changes to a system warped by policies of the 1980s and 1990s. Those unduly harsh measures have put too many Americans in prison, for too long, and at too great a cost in broken lives and communities.

The strength of justice reinvestment is its insistence on consensus; with Baker, Rosenberg, DeLeo, and Gants signed on, the emerging proposals are very likely to become law. But consensus can also be a weakness. Baker, a Republican, has been hesitant to pursue deep reform, and that has placed limits on the whole process.

The letter that went out on Baker’s letterhead a year-and-a-half ago provided an early indication of the narrow approach to justice reinvestment the governor prefers. It focused tightly on changes to the “back end” of the criminal justice system: improvements to the parole process and other efforts to stem recidivism.

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On Wednesday, the Council of State Governments, the nonpartisan, nonprofit group guiding the examination here, unveiled a set of proposals that cleaved to this limited mandate. Many of the proposals are worthy of serious consideration: incentives for inmates to complete programs shown to reduce recidivism, for instance, and greater leeway for judges to impose post-release supervision on offenders.

But as the criminal justice reform advocates who staged a noisy walkout at the council meeting argued, there is a shortsightedness to focusing on just one part of a big, interconnected system in need of a big, interconnected fix. There are strong arguments to be made for repealing mandatory minimum sentences, for instance, and reducing court fees that place substantial burdens on indigent offenders trying to put their lives back together.

Drivers licenses are too easily suspended, even for violations that have nothing to do with driving, making it harder for people on the margins of society to get to work. The state’s cash bail system falls heavily on the poor. And there is more to be done, on the “front end,” to divert offenders away from the criminal justice system and into drug and alcohol treatment.

Even a justice reinvestment process with a wider berth may have struggled to cover all of that territory. And there is nothing to stop lawmakers from proposing legislation outside that process. Indeed, the left-leaning state Senate appears determined to do more.

But here is the political reality: Whatever legislative package comes out of this consensus process in the coming weeks — with the imprimatur of the governor and other key leaders — is likely to get more attention on Beacon Hill than any competing, or complementary, proposals.

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Baker, then, should expand his view of criminal justice reform and accede to a broader legislative package than what appears to be in the offing. And if he can’t be persuaded, it is incumbent on top Democratic lawmakers — especially DeLeo, who has so often allied himself with the governor — to make a loud case for sweeping change beyond the justice reinvestment process.