Criminal Justice Reform in 2017-18 Session

My ongoing top priority as Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committee is criminal justice reform.

The criminal justice system is filled with committed professionals – police, prosecutors, judges, and probation, parole and correctional officers. Most of the laws that govern the system made sense when they were enacted and are still individually defensible.

Yet, taken together, the burdens imposed by the system are crushing for individuals who have made mistakes and destructive to social cohesion generally. Incarceration rates in Massachusetts are very high by world and historical standards (even if they are low by skewed U.S. standards). And the system makes it hard for people to get back on their feet after release from prison.

Last week, eleven Senators came together to discuss some of their ideas for reform with the press (see coverage links below). We divided reform ideas into three categories: pre-supervisory or “front end”, supervisory or “back end”, and collateral.

Pre-supervisory ideas include diversion and restorative justice – finding ways to heal people who get in trouble as an alternative to actually prosecuting them. Other front end ideas with strong sponsorship include bail reform to reduce unnecessary pre-trial incarceration and ending mandatory minimum sentences to allow case-by-case decision-making by judges.

In the supervisory category, many legislators are concerned about the overuse of solitary confinement and the unavailability of medical release for terminally-ill inmates. Some are also interested in parole reform: Few inmates are released on parole; instead, they just get released at the end of their sentence and so get no formal reintegration support as they return to the community.

On Tuesday morning, we rolled out a package proposal based on a study by the Council on State Governments that focused within the supervisory category on the question of how we can reduce recidivism (people returning to prison a second time).

Research shows that locking a person up with other convicts will generally make them more likely to reoffend – so the most important crime reduction strategy may be to reduce incarceration. The CSG package strengthens incentives for inmates to participate in rehabilitative programming – offering them sentence reductions up to a theoretical maximum of 35% for diligent participation. These incentives may both reduce incarceration and at the same time make incarceration a more useful experience. The package also endeavors to strengthen the human services that we are providing to people in prison and in the community on probation or parole.

The “collateral” category includes the automatic, non-correctional consequences of criminal justice involvement – loss of driver’s license, fees we exact from inmates, parolees and probationers, and employment and housing barriers erected by public criminal records.

The collateral reforms are every bit as important as the pre-supervisory and supervisory reforms. Every one of the fees and other automatic consequences that we impose on people has a justification to it and made sense to a majority of the legislature at some point. But cumulatively, they are crushing and people spiral downward as each problem creates another.

While many legislators are very engaged and committed to reform, others have yet to weigh in so we don’t know how the votes will add up. My opportunity and commitment as Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committee is to do all I can to move these issues to the top of the agenda for consideration and to define the choices fairly and clearly for my colleagues.

I’m very hopeful that over the next 18 months we will be able to enact pre-supervisory, supervisory and collateral reforms, and that we will meaningfully lighten the cumulative destructive burden of the criminal justice system.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

53 replies on “Criminal Justice Reform in 2017-18 Session”

  1. I hope in those reforms you can add a reform to STOP jailing dead broke fathers for the NON VIOLENT crime of being unable to afford their child support payments and also add to the reform to stop taking away their driver and professional licenses when they too can not afford to pay and stop making it so expensive too to get those licenses back if they are taken.

  2. Senator Brownsberger, Thank you and your group for your commitment to criminal justice reform! These reform measures are welcome and overdue. You have the support of many Massachusetts constituents.

  3. Thank you for your leadership in all of this. It looks like there is the potential for many improvements and that the next 18 months are so important. These changes could improve the lives of so many individuals and their children and families–and save the state money as well. Thank you for laying out the path.
    Helen Soussou

  4. The bigger issue is above my pay grade but the collateral damage is obvious for anyone who’s ever help someone work through a DUI or drug arrest. I second that how divorce is prosecuted is corrosive, not just to the innocents who are criminalized by it but also to the offspring of divorce. Outcomes tend to not be optimal for poor kids with rich parents or rich kids with poor parents or more likely, eventually, poor kids with poor parents.

  5. I’m assuming we are talking about non-violent crime.
    Can you speak to the other side of this…punishment for a crime as a deterrent to recidivism or to deter the initial commitment.
    I believe in equal justice and the punishment to fit the crime. Perhaps standardized sentencing should be reviewed in the reforms.
    High praise for rehab initiatives and addressing collateral issues.

    1. Thanks, Nancy. We are definitely on the same page on rehab and collateral!

      I think that punishment is very much overrated as a deterrent — most people who are worked up to commit a violent crime can’t think about the consequences. I do think we have to change the way respond to violence — I think for the money we spend on overly long prison terms (including for violent offenses), we could do a lot more in the community to prevent violence.

  6. I congratulate you on moving criminal justice reform forward. Thank you for this effort. However, I would like to see addressed issues such as mandatory minimums, which take discretion away from judges, and the issue of solitary confinement. A friend of mine, Ellen Frith, who is in MCI Framingham, and is physically challenged, was put in Solitary confinement for three days, because they could not find a cell to accommodate her disability. This action was outrageous as she had done nothing to warrant solitary confinement. Other abuses she has endured including the refusal by guards to unlock the elevator so she could get to programming on another floor, confiscation of her legal notes for her lawyer, and failing to restore heat during multiple days of cold weather. These are my concerns, but chief is the leveling of solitary confinement for little or no reason.

  7. Excellent! Thanks for all your hard work on this, Senator. I also appreciate the info on the results of the work of the CSG. The ability to reduce time incarcerated is very, very good.

  8. Congratulations on addressing these important issues. The state of CT is doing some interesting programs to reduce recividism including college programs in prison that you might find helpful. Thank you for this work.

  9. Will, The approach your committee has chosen is very wise, thoughtful, and should be effective in reforming all the problems with the current system.
    The social work motto is “treating
    the whole person” not just one piece of the problem. Too often we focus on only one aspect. You have my whole-hearted
    support.
    Anne Covino Goldenberg

  10. Thank you, Will, for taking the initiative on this. These are long awaited reforms and I hope we can move forward on all this.
    The challenge is to find the balance between those who need help to live a reasonable life in society, and the few who are unable to function or are dangerous, and will have to remain in some kind of institution.

  11. Thank you for this initiative and thanks for informing your constituents. This effort will help to restore a sense of justice in (generally poorer) communities. And it will align MA with the more progressive, enlightened perspective of EU nations.

  12. As a Criminal Justice graduated, I learned that solution of the is not, an never will be, incarcenation or rehabilitation, like many politicians pretend they know what they are doing. The real solution to the problem start in the family. There are not better social institution in our society that can contribute a positive change. Increase the minimum wage so make one income enough to have a decent life. Effective drug control and alcoholic beverage. Mental control program and gun control. These are some of the effective solution to the criminal control.

    1. Very true what you say — so much of the problems are outside the system. Our first goal in reforming criminal justice should be to dial back on the things that we do that make it harder for people to get back on their feet.

  13. If parole and probation become more important, I hope patronage appointments and promotions have been flushed out of the system. Can I be optimistic on that score?

    1. I think so: Probation is really doing very well under the excellent leadership of Ed Dolan and there has been a lot of turnover trending in the professional direction.

      Parole, as an executive branch agency, has always been more independent and, to my knowledge, patronage has not been a significant issue there.

  14. I’m very encouraged to read about these reforms, tackling the myriad of issues with a 3-pronged approach. It’s so important, now than ever, for progressive states to set the example for the nation, Massachusetts, New York and California in particular. Whether it’s criminal justice reform, environmental protections, ACA and financial consumer protections, and free/affordable/quality public education.
    Thank-you again for your hard work in these and other complicated issues impacting our communities.

  15. Yes get rid of patronage and instead of jails most people arrested have some kind oof substance abuse or drug use therefore ssend them to programs while their they wwould have to participate in some sort oof work relaese that turns into a permanent job

  16. Just like your attitude towards the ERIP is wrong this criminal reform approach is wrong as well. You do the time you do the crime. That is not the issue. Early release is not a fix. Relaxing mandatory sentences is not the fix. The fix is this.

    1. Get trained in a profession whether it be trades or college and come out of jail ready for a GOOD paying job. Or go to school once out and have a way to pay for it.

    2. Have a job waiting. Do not have the person struggling to get a job after they come out.

    3. Must not go back to living in the same area or associate with the same people including family if needed. No education, no training, no job and go back to the same living area with the same bad friends or family equals repeat offenders. The rest is just BS.

  17. Hi Will,
    99.9 % of people in prison deserve to be there. It is very hard for a criminal to get caught in the first place. A prosecutor then has the extremely hard job finding witnesses and evidence to convince a judge or jury to convict. Many of these criminals already get leniency through plea deals. The judge determines what sentence is appropriate in each case. If after a judge hears an entire case, renders a decision of guilt, then determines a sentence, who are we then to undermine the judges term of incarceration. A judge knows full well how much time a person sentenced will actually serve and likely takes that into account in sentencing. If you shorten sentences in prison or houses of correction, the judge will simply rule a longer sentence for people he feels need to pay a higher debt to society for what they did. I am all for doing as much as possible through training and education to help prevent repeat offenders, but a judge, after hearing everything about someone, is in the best position to determine what education, training, or punishment fits the crime and offender. Make these programs or alternatives available to a judge when sentencing, but do not question a judge who feels incarceration is necessary for public safety concerns or to punish. Enough punishment to deter crime has to be a part of the rehabilitation process.

    1. Thanks, Dave.

      I agree that judges should be making the decisions. (Do we then agree on repealing mandatory minimums?)

      And I also agree that judges (and all court room players) know the rules and will do what they think is right using the rules — changing the rules doesn’t necessarily change outcomes.

      You are also right that achieving convictions is often expensive — especially in the most serious cases.

      But I think we have to recognize that the going rate has changed — we don’t have higher crime, but we have a much higher prison population. I believe we are hitting people to hard overall.

  18. I worked for the Dept of Correction for a year many years ago. While there I followed the research on recidivism closely, and at least then the essence of that work was that recidivism was hugely age-dependent. Then it seemed clear that the simplest way to inhibit recidivism was to keep people in prison until they were in their late twenties or early thirties. You could release them then, practically independent of when they went in or what they were sentenced for, and you will get good results. At least in those days, you really didn’t want to hang the justification of any reform on recidivism, because the most important factor — age — was not directly in your control. The line separating good from bad research was the number of years the released inmates were tracked. Two years gave you deceptive results; four years was much better.

  19. In my job as a nurse in the Emergency Department of a Boston hospital, I have very frequent encounters with individuals who report that they have very recently been released from prison (often the same day they come to the ED). Their common cluster of complaints involve lack of planning and resources at the time of release. I have not verified these issues with any prison personnel. The patients (ex-inmates) complain of the following : no money or transportation resources to anywhere, no medications or prescriptions for any meds despite having received them daily during their incarceration, no food and no money to buy food, no resources for domicile including no shelter list, no adequate clothing for the current weather. Any one of these factors can lead to disaster, much less the collective deprivation. I have much more to say about the reform discourse but this is a frightening indicator of disrespect for human beings, all of whom were once tender babies with potential. Dare I call it the canary?

  20. RE: the decrease of prisoners released on parole.

    Have you ever spoken to our former governor about his impact on this statistic?
    If so, can you share is comments?

  21. I don’t have any useful input on the details, but I would like to thank you for recognizing and taking action on a problem that tends to fly below the radar. Your approach makes a lot of sense to me.

  22. I thought just the thought of going to jail would make someone not want to commit a crime. I didn’t see anything about the victims of crime? Like I said my friend was stabbed FIVE TIMES AND THEY GAVE HIM A SIMPLE ASSAULT CHARGE. They asked her what she did to make him stab her???????????? Lucky I was not around to go to court with her at the time.

    1. Think about this — for you and I, committing an assault like that is an unspeakable horror in its self, and we don’t need to jail to deter us.

      For those who actually commit these crimes, at least at the time they commit the crimes, perhaps in a rage, they are blind to the horror and to the possibility of jail.

      The notion that jail deters crime has only limited validity. The notion that extending jail terms makes for greater deterrence is especially doubtful.

  23. A big missing piece is legislative reform of the department of corrections. The prison system operates to impair prisoners abilities to succeed after release, by classifying too many prisoners in strict security, failing to implement work release programs for more eligible prisoners & employing inhumane isolation and segregation practices. Hold hearings and drain the present swamp.

  24. Will – thank you again for tackling this issue in a thoughtful way. I fully support your efforts here.

  25. Thank you Will. I agree with your approach 100%. We need much more focus on helping people and rehabilitating them rather than just locking them up.

  26. In California, so-called petty crimes (auto burglary, graffiti, shoplifting) are way up in a trend that abruptly started 3 years ago, following passage of a state law Proposition 47. That law reduced property crimes under $950 to misdemeanors, which sounded reasonable to most of us voters for the reasons outlined in the legislative summary posted here: avoiding jail time for people who make mistakes, with the hope of stitching together the social fabric frayed by historically-high incarceration.

    But the result has been the opposite. We now have an emerging, growing class of emboldened scofflaws. Chain stores now look the other way at shop-lifters, unwilling to prosecute. Police fail to stem the tide of car-breakins. Police unions defend the indefensible, and DAs turn their attention away from the vexing problems of we the people.

    I’ve had it with the finger pointing and have joined many Californians in wanting a repeal of Prop 47, as the police unions demand.

    Watch out for unintended consequences in Massachusetts.

  27. Senator,

    Thank you for your focus on this. Criminal reform is absolutely essential. The number of imprisoned citizens in our country (states included) are among the highest in the world… defying human rights. Not reflective of a democracy. Imprisonment without sufficient trials and/or for petty offenses, solitary confinement, and more need immediate reform. Capitol punishment must be abolished.

  28. I believe FIRST TIME OFFENDERS serving a life/LWOP Sentence, even if for a fatality, AND if they already served over 20 years, should be considered in Prison Reform Goals, for release even if to a Transitional Residential Facility.

  29. we need to make restraining orders harder to obtain – current standard is a preponderance of evidence (who ever has the best story) This is based in fact that it is a civil issue but the penalty part of it is criminal – so you two different standards , Not only that but one can loose their home and access to their children and possessions – we need at the very least Clear and convincing standard of evidence , this will also cut down on the requirements of the Police and DA’s office

  30. I feel it is time for massachusetts to get with the times and use the technology of ignition interlock device in place of license suspensions

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