MassINC panel tackles criminal justice reform

Issue March 2014 By Mike Vigneux

MassINC, the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition hosted a presentation and panel discussion entitled "Reform, Re-entry and Results: Change and Progress in the Massachusetts Criminal Justice System" on Thursday, Feb. 20, at UMass Boston.

The event featured remarks from Gov. Deval L. Patrick, who announced a program that aims to reduce recidivism by prison inmates by 50 percent during the next five years. The governor called for the reinstatement of the Sentencing Commission, the limited use of restraints on mentally ill inmates in state prisons to only those that pose "serious and immediate" danger, and the abolishment of the use of restraints on pregnant inmates during labor.

Patrick highlighted the importance of re-entry programs, stating that 97 percent of those incarcerated will return to Massachusetts communities after serving time in prison. He also introduced a "step down" program in which state prison inmates would be transferred back into society through county correctional facilities before their release. In addition, Patrick noted his newly released budget calls for doubling the number of mental health specialty courts from three to six in order to prevent those who commit crimes due to mental illness from going to state prison or county houses of correction.

Patrick also stressed the prevention and treatment of substance abuse as primarily a health problem.

"Punishing people for addiction doesn't work. We need to treat substance abuse as a health problem instead of a criminal one," said Patrick.

Patrick's remarks came as the introduction to the release of new MassINC Polling Group results, "Ready for Reform? Public Opinion on Criminal Justice in Massachusetts." The MassINC Polling Group results were derived from a recently concluded public opinion research project on criminal justice reform in the state. The research included four focus groups and a statewide telephone poll of 1,207 Massachusetts residents.

The six main findings of the research study are:

  • Massachusetts residents want the criminal justice system to focus on prevention and rehabilitation - two areas where the current system is not seen as effective. (64 percent think the criminal justice system should prioritize crime prevention or rehabilitation.)
  • Two-thirds want reforms that result in fewer people sent to prison, reversing previous high levels of support for new prisons. (67 percent prefer reforming the system so fewer people are sent to prison rather than building more prisons.)
  • Residents show little support for mandatory minimum sentencing. (Only 11 percent preferred mandatory minimum sentences compared to judges using either sentencing guidelines or determining sentences on a case-by-case basis.)
  • The public sees drug use as a health problem rather than a crime, and seeks an increased focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration. (64 percent are more likely to perceive drug use as a health problem rather than a crime.)
  • Concerns about supervision cloud the picture of public support. (The focus groups found residents do not believe the supervision system is effective right now.)
  • In areas where more inmates are released, residents agree with the broad, pro-reform sentiment of the rest of the state. (49 percent of Department of Correction releases will take place in 10 communities, thus oversampling was done in these communities.)

The event concluded with a panel discussion of experts and activists responding to Patrick's remarks as well as the new public opinion data. Panelists were: Greg Torres (moderator), president, MassINC; True-See Allah, Director, Boston Reentry Initiative - Suffolk County Sheriff's Department; Kevin Burke, Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety and Security (2007-2010), co-chair, Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition; Andrea Cabral, Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety and Security; John Larivee, CEO, Community Resources for Justice; Marian T. Ryan, Middlesex District Attorney; Max D. Stern, partner, Stern Shapiro Weissberg & Garin LLP, co-chair, Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition; and Steven W. Tompkins, Suffolk County Sheriff.