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Top Mass. Officials Unite Around Criminal Justice Reform Initiative

Chief Justice Ralph Gants testified in June at a packed Judiciary Committee hearing on sentencing reform. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Chief Justice Ralph Gants testified in June at a packed Judiciary Committee hearing on sentencing reform. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
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State government leaders in Massachusetts are renewing an effort that past leaders had called for but failed to secure: the help of the U.S. Department of Justice and Pew Center on the States in conducting a comprehensive analysis of the state's criminal justice system.

Three years ago, in July 2012, former Senate President Therese Murray said state officials who were passing a law toughening penalties on repeat violent offenders should call on the national Pew Center to conduct a complete analysis of the state's criminal justice system. Advocates and some lawmakers at the time were concerned about overcrowded prisons and laws that critics said didn't always match crimes with appropriate sentences.

In a new move that appears designed to lead to bipartisan criminal justice policy breakthroughs, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Gov. Charlie Baker and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants are seeking federal help to lower prison populations, reduce recidivism, and limit spending on the state's criminal justice system. Rosenberg and DeLeo in June expressed interest in and outside review and they've formalized their request.


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In a letter dated last Thursday and released Monday morning, top state officials asked the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pew Center on the States to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the Commonwealth's criminal justice system using the data-driven approach of the Council of State Government's Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

The state's prison population has declined over the last decade to the point that the state has begun mothballing some facilities, the letter said. And as of late May, there were more than 1,300 empty beds in Department of Correction facilities, according to the DOC.

The rate of recidivism — the percentage of offenders who are re-arrested within three years of release — has held steady at approximately 40 percent, according to the governor's office and DOC. Massachusetts law does not mandate post-release supervision.

Baker said Monday he is particularly interested in finding out what models and programs worked to reduce the recidivism rate in other states, noting that a reduction in recidivism will also contribute to a reduction in the overall incarceration rate.

"If we can figure out which programs and which approaches seem to work best to reduce recidivism, we'll reduce the population by doing that because the big issue is people sort of cycling in, cycling out, cycling in, cycling out," Baker told reporters.

Rosenberg said in a statement that he hoped the process will "develop comprehensive policies to reform the criminal justice system in our state to achieve better outcomes while protecting public safety. We can be both tough on crime and smart on crime." He said he expects "to take a deep dive into our current policies and find solutions that will result in cost savings, implementation of best practices, and a reduction in recidivism rates."

In the letter, state officials said they intend to focus the analysis on post-release supervision, the effect that mental health and substance abuse services have on the recidivism rate, civilian workforce reintegration programs, and whether the incarceration and recidivism rates could be decreased through early release programs.

"With one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation, Massachusetts can have a leading role in exploring new reforms and taking steps to better prepare individuals for reentry into society to lead productive, healthy lives," Baker said in his own statement. "It will be a priority for my administration that while we continue to emphasize public safety and justice for victims of violent crime, we also work with the JRI to build on our Commonwealth's many strengths in criminal justice reform."

DeLeo said the Council on State Government's is well-suited to conduct the review to "make sure our public safety policies are cost-effective and reflect common sense. In order to take a pragmatic look at our system in Massachusetts, we require the best information available."

Massachusetts lawmakers over the years have been unable to come up with omnibus criminal justice system reforms, with debates often bogging down due to funding obstacles, disagreements over changes in sentencing laws, and the complexities involved with overhauling a system that spans many agencies and involves county sheriffs as well.

Sen. William Brownsberger, the Senate chair of the Committee on the Judiciary, said the review of the criminal justice system will be "well-focused on the things we most need to know," especially how the different aspects of the system can interact to reduce recidivism.

"I'm hopeful we'll get a better understanding of the opportunities we have to redesign our correctional process — our prisons, houses of correction, the parole process, the probation process — so the pieces of it can work together effectively to provide people a continuum of supervision such that they have the experience once and they get back on track," Brownsberger said.

Just as Baker used task forces to dig into opioid abuse and MBTA performance issues, the criminal justice initiative will require appointments to a bipartisan task force.

"Our state leaders recognize that collecting and analyzing criminal justice data is the most rational way to make administrative and policy decisions," Baker, Rosenberg, DeLeo and Gants wrote in the letter.

Under plans outlined by state officials, the CSG Justice Center will present findings to the task force, which will develop policy options that will be presented as legislation to "design, enact, and adopt new policies, practices, and programs" that would address the state's criminal justice needs while reducing spending and generating savings.

A portion of those savings would then be reinvested "in strategies to increase public safety such as community-based treatment, probation, prevention-oriented policing strategies, and community-based recidivism reduction efforts," according to the initiative's website.

In a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce earlier this year, Rosenberg linked sentencing reform and the state's opioid crisis, citing other states that have worked with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative to reinvest in substance abuse treatment at a time when budgets are being strained by fixed health care and energy costs.

Gants, too, has said that state money could be "better spent on programs that are designed to combat our opiate abuse crisis."

Once the review process begins, officials said, the full process is expected to take between six and nine months. The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is funded through Congressional appropriations and the Pew Charitable Trusts, according to its website.

More than two dozen states and 17 individual jurisdictions across the country are part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, including New Hampshire and Connecticut. Last month, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Riamondo signed an executive order to begin a comprehensive look at that state's system using the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

Connecticut, which implemented reinvestment strategies in 2004, saved about $30 million and put about $13 million of the savings back into community-based programs to reduce probation violations and recidivism, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

In 2013, the Special Commission to Study the Criminal Justice Commission was denied assistance from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, though officials from the Pew Center for the States advised Massachusetts to keep the lines of communication open, the News Service reported in 2013.

"From ongoing conversations with them we are well aligned for CSG to accept the request and begin their review," Rosenberg spokesman Pete Wilson said Monday in an email.

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