Massachusetts legislators have come far in developing a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill. Unfortunately, while many important items are garnering attention, there are other factors that could be of maximum benefit to our Commonwealth and its most vulnerable citizens that are not being explored.
People with behavioral health conditions are overrepresented in every aspect of our criminal justice system. An estimated 27 percent of Massachusetts state prison inmates previously have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness; of those incarcerated in our county jails, 44 percent have been diagnosed with mental health conditions and 26 percent with serious psychological disorders.
Most prisoners in Massachusetts are eventually released; nearly four out of 10 will be re-incarcerated within three years.
As a state, we have yet to widely implement programs proven at diverting these individuals from entering the criminal justice system and preventing recidivism. Programs such as the Worcester Initiative for Supported Reentry achieve these goals and have the potential to save the Commonwealth significant resources while improving the lives of those with behavioral health conditions.
As advocates for the development of evidence-based services for people with mental health conditions, we encourage a closer examination of effective solutions and dialogue between our leaders seeking to reform both the Commonwealth’s behavioral health and criminal justice systems.
Having lost two friends this year to overdose, and one to murder, I have spent months meeting with state legislators to talk about going upstream to work on causes of this crisis. While my heart remains heavy, my spirit is lifted by the realization that our elected officials are ready to do the hard work of shifting resources away from policy failures, such as mandatory minimums and incarcerating people for bail or probation fees, and toward addressing the problems at the root.
Massachusetts’ incarceration has quadrupled in recent decades. Most people in prison suffer from addiction, mental illness, and post-traumatic stress. Too many state policies — from post-release fines and fees to solitary confinement — ratchet up levels of stress and even create new trauma.
These issues are safer politically to ignore, but we have to unwind bad policy in order to invest in what works. We have brilliant interventions such as the Life Skills program, which teaches middle-schoolers emotional regulation, conflict resolution, and coping skills, and which dramatically reduces the likelihood of addiction. We have drug treatment, and cutting-edge therapies for victims of trauma, but these are chronically underfunded.
The Massachusetts Senate voted 27-10 to reduce over-incarceration and to reinvest the savings in programs that work.
I have been honored to meet with dozens of House members who are equally up to the task.
The writer is an organizer with the Massachusetts Communities Action Network.
Our overwhelmingly Democratic state senators passed a bill last week that would repeal minimum sentences for selling heroin within 300 feet of a school. This is amazing. With the drug problem reaching epidemic proportions, to do something like this is simply dumber than dirt. Massachusetts residents elected these people, but you can probably tell I wasn’t one of them.
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