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. 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
    Anne Covino Goldenberg

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  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. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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