Officials Unveil Report Proposing Extensive Reforms For Mass. Criminal Justice System

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State leaders unveiled a long-awaited criminal justice reform report on Tuesday, with recommendations aimed at reducing the revolving door at many of Massachusetts' jails and prisons.

But some criminal justice advocates say the recommendations will not do enough to stop people — particularly blacks and Latinos — from being locked up in the first place.

The report is the result of a year's worth of work. Legislative leaders commissioned the Council of State Governments Justice Center to do a data-driven analysis of the state's criminal justice system that focused on incarceration, recidivism and supervision. The group's recommendations, which were revealed by several top lawmakers at the State House, are expected to eventually lead to legislation and changes in state law.

Massachusetts has the second-lowest incarceration rate in the country, Gov. Charlie Baker said, but more than half of those released from state custody were arraigned on new charges within three years.

"Prison is — as it should be — a punishment, but the people in Massachusetts are better served when more individuals exit the system as law-abiding and productive members of society," Baker said.

Among the report's recommendations:

  • increase anti-recidivism programming through incentives, like good time credits that would get people out of prison earlier
  • smooth out the process of awarding parole. Currently, most prisoners given parole approval are waiting about 200 days to walk out of prison.
  • strengthen community supervision
  • increase behavioral health care for those on probation or parole
  • do a better job keeping data and monitoring performance of programs

Not mentioned in the report: changing mandatory minimum sentences, or reforming the bail system, efforts that advocates say would keep people from spending time in jail or prison.

Interrupting several speakers with chants of "What's your plan?," a handful of demonstrators from the Massachusetts Communities Action Network made sure those issues came up. The protesters held copies of a mock "report card" judging how the group's recommendations address the topics of sentencing and bail reforms, racial disparities in incarceration, youth criminalization and the level of prison programming. They gave it an F.

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants cautioned against rushing to conclusions.

"I know there are those who are prepared already to grade our efforts," he said. "But, I think it's fairer to say that that grade should wait at least a year or two years at the conclusion of the legislative session, and then it will be fairer to grade what the results of this are."

But one of those protesters, Rabbi Margie Klein Ronkin, leader of a congregation in Ashland, said communities affected by mass incarceration are tired of waiting.

"We can't wait," she said. "People are always telling poor communities of color to wait."

Now, legislators will take up the recommendations and decide what will become law. Democratic legislators have already outlined a bevy of proposals, from raising the age for juvenile offenders to 21, to how to handle elderly prisoners. Bills were also filed proposing both the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences, as well as restrictions on what's called "fine-time" sentences, where people unable to pay bail are jailed.

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg gave a nod to both those focused on recidivism, and those who felt the report ignored the front end of the prison pipeline.

"I expect there to be a very robust debate as we continue to work together to identify the best ways of ensuring public safety," he said, "but also ensuring that we are only incarcerating people who need to be incarcerated."

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described aspects of the report's recommendations. We have clarified the language and regret the errors. 

This article was originally published on February 21, 2017.


Headshot of Ally Jarmanning

Ally Jarmanning Senior Reporter
Ally is a senior reporter focused on criminal justice and police accountability.



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