As historically tough-on-crime states are beginning to strike a balance that allows for punishment without a extreme dependence on incarceration, Massachusetts is struggling to find similar footing. A new report on the state, offered by a coalition of criminal justice professionals and officials, indicates that while crime has gone down over the past several years, the percentage of people behind bars has actually increased—a serious problem to be sure.
The report comes from MassINC, a “nonpartisan research group” who commissioned the study, along with the Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and Community Resources for Justice. In its entirety, the report is 40 pages long, and offers a blasting look at the state’s system of incarceration.
Not only is the states incarceration rate steadily climbing despite reductions in violent crime, the recidivism rate is also remarkably high. For every ten inmates released from prison, six will commit a new offense within a six year period.
“What the report shows is that it’s a problem with the corrections systems front and back doors – sentencing and release,” explained Greg Torres, president of MassINC.
People are being sentenced to serve longer and more severe sentences and they are being given less help in getting back on their feet after the sentence is served.
Other states have begun reforming their sentencing laws, creating policies that encourage assistance and rehabilitation for most offenders, saving incarceration for the most dangerous individuals. And many of these states are subsequently seeing lower incarceration rates, lower recidivism rates, and lower costs to accompany their lower crime rates.
“We’ve got a corrections system that does not actually do much correcting,” said Wayne Budd a cochairman on the Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. “What we’re seeing in other states is moving the focus away from the warehousing of people in prisons and toward actually assisting people.”
The state needs to change its warehousing practices not only for the good of the people and the communities they come from and are released to, but also for the good of the state budget. It’s estimated that reducing the recidivism rate by 5% would save $150 million from the huge $1 billion corrections budget.
“The mindset is very clear,” said Rep. Brad Hill. “We want to take the most heinous criminals off the streets and put them behind bars. Everyone else, we want to help.”
The report is a move in the right direction, to get lawmakers and policy practitioners on all sides talking about reform. Now to see if those in power can move past their fear of looking “soft on crime” to make some real significant changes.
Until changes are made, we will continue to see prosecutors and judges sending people away for long prison stints.