Massachusetts has many achievements to be proud of, but our criminal justice system is not among them. We are, at best, average among states. Often, we are worse than average on such metrics as rates of incarceration, racial inequities, recidivism, alternatives to prison, rehabilitation, re-entry programs and mandatory sentencing. Let’s end this embarrassment now.
The U. S. imprisons young African American men at a rate higher than the incarceration rate of Blacks in apartheid South Africa at the height of apartheid.
Overall, America’s criminal justice record is terrible. The U. S. imprisons people far more often than any other western democracy — eight times the rate of Germany, for example. According a comparison of American and European prisons reported by the Vera Institute of Justice, "The overall imprisonment rate in the United States, including the jail and federal population, is 716 per 100,000 residents. The comparison to European rates is startling: 79 per 100,000 residents in Germany and 82 per 100,000 residents in the Netherlands are in prison. Only Russia comes close."
The burden of rampant incarceration falls heavily on communities of color. The U. S. imprisons young African American men at a rate higher than the incarceration rate of Blacks in apartheid South Africa at the height of apartheid. Three out of four young Black men in Washington, D. C., are expected to spend time in prison. In Massachusetts, Blacks are locked up eight times more often than whites; Latinos, six times more often. Half of the people released from prison will be back in under three years.
Improvement is a three-part challenge: First, reduce the number of people who are sent to prison; second, use incarceration as an opportunity to intervene in lives – often young lives – that have gone off the tracks; and, third, provide sensible supports for re-entry from prison back into normal, productive life.
Investing in reducing incarceration is smart business, because, in criminal justice reform, the moral imperatives align thoroughly with both public and (most of the time) private sector financial interests. (One private sector exception is the growing trend toward for-profit, private prison operators, which our state should avoid like the plague it is.)
It costs $45,500 a year to keep someone in a Massachusetts state prison and $37,000 in a county house of corrections. Even so, folly of follies, Massachusetts plans to build more prisons to the tune of, potentially, $1 billion of public capital. Even the most intensive programs of intervention on extremely high risk youth cost less than $20,000 a year per person, and a fraction of that is often plenty to turn a young life around.
In Massachusetts, examples of successful programs abound. Roca, headquartered in Chelsea, reduced incarceration rates from 65 percent to 22 percent. The United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) in Lowell enrolls youth of “proven risk” – that is, youth already in deep trouble, leading gangs or in prison – in intensive programs of vocational training, mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment and peer support. It has reduced recidivism from 85 percent to 15 percent. Massachusetts has 11 “Safe and Successful Youth” (SSYI) grant programs, funded originally at a total of $10 million, and now down to $5 million. Statewide, SSYI has reduced youth-related homicides by 25 percent.
Beyond our state, another program, “Cure Violence,” founded in 2003 in Chicago, by physician Gary Slutnik, intercepts the spread of gang violence when a shooting occurs. Cure Violence is now in 25 cities and a dozen countries. Gun violence falls 50 to 75 percent when that program is implemented.
Public fears have scared too many political leaders from championing corrections reform. One parolee gone bad (remember Willie Horton?) can make discussion of more sensible corrections policy politically radioactive. So real progress stalls.
Instead, we have illogical mandatory sentencing requirements that tie the hands of courts. We have slashed prison budgets for education and treatment programs that are known to reduce recidivism by half or more. Prisoners re-entering communities too often get little more than a handshake and some paperwork, and they find it difficult or impossible to get housing, work, health care coverage, education or even a driver’s license.
Prisoners re-entering communities too often get little more than a handshake and some paperwork, and they find it difficult or impossible to get housing, work, health care coverage, education or even a driver’s license<a href="http://www.mass.gov/bb/h1/fy15h1/exec_15/hbudbrief8.htm" target="_blank"></a>.
For the most part, Massachusetts sheriffs and corrections officials are doing their best under Draconian resource constraints. They find volunteers to fill gaps in their GED and vocational training programs; they dig deep into their own budgets to help when they can to find medication and housing for homeward-bound prisoners. But that is nowhere near enough; they are stopgaps, at best, compared with a systemic, integrated, decent model.
Criminal justice reform should be a centerpiece of Massachusetts policy. Our goal should be to become the model for the nation within five years. Aims should include: halving the prison population by 2020; ending the unconscionable racial inequity in incarceration; adopting statewide the best-known programs, drawn from anywhere in the world, for preventing imprisonment; assuring rehabilitation and supporting re-entry; restoring sentencing discretion and capacity to the courts; and, immediately, providing expanded and stable budgetary support for the highly effective youth-oriented interception programs like UTEC, ROCA and SSYI.
Let’s get over the fear and silence the demagoguery.