I spent a Saturday in early April in Denver with legislators from across the country at a meeting about criminal justice reform convened by the National Conference of State Legislatures. The chance to hear what people are doing and thinking in other states was worth the plane time.
The country is in the middle of a national attitude change on criminal justice issues. One senior republican state senator from a large eastern state talked about his change of direction after decades of passing tough-on-crime bills. During his long tenure, the prison population in his state grew six-fold. During roughly the same period, the prison population in Massachusetts grew five-fold — most of that growth occurred between 1974 and 1992.
I spent several days last summer reading through all the major crime legislation that Massachusetts passed over the last few decades. Every few years, when some new horror hit the front pages, the legislature responded with legislation targeting the undesirable behavior with new penalties — drunk driving, child pornography, drug dealing, assaults on the elderly. But when I compared the legislative changes with statistics on the prison population, I really could not correlate the law changes with prison growth — much of the growth occurred in categories of crime that have always been subject to severe penalties — larceny, rape, robbery, battery, murder.
Crime did rise dramatically from 1960 to 1990 and that underlying reality explains much of the rise in incarceration. But in many categories, crime peaked and began to decline before the prison population reached its current levels. Some of the growth and much of the continued elevation of the prison population in Massachusetts has likely been due to changes in discretionary decision-making by police officers, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, probation and parole officers. People got fed up with crime in the 70s and 80s and the whole system responded.
Now, there is an increasing sense that we have gone too far. People do not heal more or learn more by staying in prison longer. Nor, in fact are they chastened or frightened by punishment. Long prison terms simply do not change behavior in a positive way. And if we make it harder for convicts to get jobs and housing after they get out, they are more likely to fail and end up back in prison.
In Denver yesterday, legislative leaders in both parties from across the country talked about the changes they are making that will shorten prison terms and make it easier for people to get back on their feet after they make mistakes. We recognized, however, that, just as during the previous decades of growth in incarceration, many of the changes will be made not by legislators but by people on the front lines.
In fact, people on the front lines are responding already. Police in many communities in Massachusetts are taking interest in mental health and substance abuse treatment and in other alternatives to prosecution. Judges are creating specialty courts focused on meeting the needs that drive people to crime, notably drug courts. Our correctional leaders — sheriffs, state prison officials and probation and parole leaders are also speaking the language of rehabilitation and seeking to help offenders re-enter society successfully.
I’m very hopeful that together, we can make our communities safer by “lifting people up instead of locking people up.” In theory, we could go too far and lose sight of the need to incarcerate the most dangerous repeat offenders — the people we are really scared of. But we are a long way from that at this stage.
Web Resources on Criminal Justice Reform
- NCSL Meeting Resource List
- NCSL — sentencing and corrections home page
- Right on Crime — conservative pro-reform perspective.
- Council on State Governments Justice Information Center.
- MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge
- Arnold Foundation’s pre-trial initiative
- Urban Institute’s justice policy center
- Vera Institute of Justice’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections
- Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics
- Pew Charitable Trust justice related projects