As the conversation about criminal justice reform heats up, some numbers are helpful for putting things in perspective.
As of January 2, 2017, Massachusetts had 19,571 people locked up — 9,040 in its statewide prison system and 10,531 in its county level system. At the county level, roughly half were awaiting trial.
In a recent ranking, Massachusetts had the lowest incarceration rate among the 50 states — less than half the U.S. average.
But, if Massachusetts were a country, it would have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world — exceeded mostly by other states. While international comparisons are fraught with data problems, it is clear that Massachusetts locks people up at more than twice the rate of comparable European countries.
Most strikingly, Massachusetts locks up 4 to 5 times more people than it did 40 years ago in the mid seventies.
There was a stunning rise in incarceration in Massachusetts from the mid-70s to the early 90s followed by stabilization at the new level (and lately a drift slightly downward). This pattern appears in the national data as well.
The increase was not primarily the result of legislative enactments — at the state prison level as of January 1, only 1,247 of 9,498 state prisoners (including state prisoners held at the county level) had been sentenced on drug charges (of which 868 were serving mandatory sentences).
Most inmates serving mandatory sentences are serving sentences for violent offenses (mostly life sentences for murder), which carried mandatory penalties before the upturn in incarceration rates.
The national increase in incarceration was the result of a tough-on-crime movement that perhaps grew out of the rising crime, civil disorder and racial tension of the 60s. Whatever its political roots, we cannot reverse it by legislative action alone. Prosecutors, judges and correctional officials have the most direct influence on incarceration levels.
Many — but by no means all — long time Massachusetts residents would say that they feel safer in their homes and on their streets than they did 40 years ago. And crime statistics generally bear that perception out.
Did higher incarceration rates lead to lower crime or should we expect that lower crime should result in lower incarceration rates? Experts are not unanimous, but a panel of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that, overall, longer prison sentences made some difference, but not much, in reducing crime. People committing crimes are generally not thinking ahead to the sentence they might face — so longer sentences do not deter people. There is also little rehabilitative value to incarceration. Finally, most people age out of crime, so keeping them locked up after they have matured is inefficient (and wrong) except for the most dangerous offenders.
While we tend to focus on incarceration, there is a much larger group of people who are under criminal justice supervision in the community — roughly 65,000 on probation and 2,000 on parole.
We charge these people a collection of fees that add-up in many cases to well over $50 per month. Probation fees were introduced in Massachusetts by the Democratically controlled legislature in 1988 as part of a broader revenue raising bill to help shore up the budget in the middle of Governor Dukakis’s campaign for President.
The burden of incarceration and criminal justice supervision falls much more heavily on communities of poverty and color — generally, incarceration experience is over 20x more prevalent in the poorest 10% of neighborhoods than in the more affluent areas of the state. The neighborhood contrasts are dramatic even within the city of Boston. Intertwined with the poverty and geography statistics are huge contrasts in criminal justice experience by race — for example, the black/white ratio for incarceration rates is roughly 6:1.
The conversation about the issues raised by these statistics is ongoing and I look forward to hearing from you at willbrownsberger.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-722-1280.
Community Discussions scheduled
We have conversations scheduled across my district on these issues. Visit this post for details.