Despite steeply declining violent crime rates, the percentage of Massachusetts residents behind bars has tripled since the early 1980s, as the Commonwealth has clung to tough-on-crime laws that many other states have abandoned as ineffective, according to a study being released this week.
The 40-page report — endorsed by a coalition of prominent former prosecutors, defense attorneys, and justice officials — slams the state for focusing too much on prolonged incarceration, through measures such as mandatory minimum sentences, and for paying too little attention to successfully integrating prisoners back into society.
This is not just a social justice issue, the coalition argues, but a serious budgetary problem. The report estimated that policies that have led to more Draconian sentences and fewer paroles have extended prison stays by a third since 1990, costing the state an extra $150 million a year.
“It’s an odd set of numbers: crime going down while prison populations are still going up,” said Greg Torres, president of MassINC, the nonpartisan research group that commissioned the study. “What the report shows is that it’s a problem with the corrections systems front and back doors — sentencing and release.”
The study says Massachusetts, with its rising prison population, is heading in the opposite direction of several more traditionally law-and-order states — many of which have changed sentencing requirements, closed prisons, and cut costs. While other states have seen drops in incarceration in conjunction with falling crime rates, Massachusetts has seen the opposite.
In addition to the longer prison stays, Torres said, a reduction in post-release supervision has left Massachusetts with a recidivism rate higher than many other states, which in turn has sent more offenders back to prison. New data in the report show that six of every 10 inmates released from state and county prisons commit new crimes within six years.
If the recidivism rate was cut by 5 percent, the report says, Massachusetts could cut $150 million from its more than $1 billion corrections budget.
Released in partnership with the newly formed grouping of law-enforcement officials, which is called Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, and Community Resources for Justice, a social justice nonprofit group, the report issues include a moratorium on the expansion of state prisons, reexamining sentencing guidelines, and expanding prerelease programs.
“In the last 10 years we’ve learned a lot about what doesn’t work,” said John Larivee, chief executive of Community Resources for Justice and coauthor of the report.
One key to changing the state’s corrections system, the report’s authors stress, is building bipartisan consensus so neither side can later be accused of being soft on crime.
“There’s more bipartisan common ground than you might expect,” said Wayne Budd, a Republican who is one of the reform coalition’s three cochairmen.
In addition to Budd, the coalition is led by Kevin M. Burke, former state secretary of public safety, and Max D. Stern, president of the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Budd, who served as US Attorney for Massachusetts under President George H.W. Bush, said that Massachusetts has been too slow to implement common-sense changes focused on reducing recidivism.
“We’ve got a corrections system that does not actually do much correcting,” he said. “What we’re seeing in other states is moving the focus away from the warehousing of people in prisons and toward actually assisting people.”
Massachusetts was one of many states to stiffen sentencing policies during the early 1990s after convicted murdered Willie Horton was successfully used to derail then-Governor Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign.
Horton was given weekend furlough on Dukakis’s watch. During his weekend release, Horton bound a man and forced him to watch as he raped the man’s fiancee.
Decades later, Horton’s legacy haunts state and national politics and elected officials — especially in Massachusetts — remain conscious of maintaining the perception they are “tough on crime” in the eyes of voters.
Led by prosecutors, law enforcement officials and victims’ family, the tough-on-crime lobby often demands legislative responses to heinous crimes.
When Woburn police officer John Maguire was shot and killed in 2010 by Dominic Cinelli, a paroled felon, Governor Deval Patrick replaced the bulk of the state parole board, an action the report’s authors describe as an example of reactionary corrections policy.
Since becoming governor in 2007, Patrick has repeatedly called for large-scale sentencing and corrections changes, focused on returning more sentencing discretion to judges and making it easier for prisoners who have served their time to reenter society.
At least two of his state budget proposals laid out massive overhauls to the state’s prison system and sentencing guidelines. But most of those reforms were stripped from the state budget before the final version made it to the governor’s desk.
Still, Patrick administration officials note that they have been able to push some changes through the Legislature, including easing disclosure rules for ex-prisoners seeking jobs, scaling back mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, and creating the Special Commission to Study the Criminal Justice System.
Advocates for more sweeping change note that many other states — including Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas — have more drastically scaled back minimum sentencing requirements and beefed up reentry programs as a way to cut costs.
Meanwhile, many prominent national Republicans who once trumpeted tough-on-crime stances — including Governor Rick Perry of Texas, former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich — now call for sentencing changes and rehabilitation programs as a way to curb government spending on prisons.
Patrick administration officials note that many states that have changed their laws have utilized federal money from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a pot of funding for data-driven criminal justice programs, which the state is currently pursuing.
“The JRI initiative has been critical in helping other states move to a new way of thinking about the administration of justice,” said Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety. “We are optimistic about the positive outcomes it could bring to Massachusetts.”
The key to accomplishing sentencing overhaul will be cooperation between prosecutors and defense attorneys, who frequently lobby opposite sides of corrections issues.
“If we can get the prosecutors and the defense attorneys on the same page, we’ve won half the battle,” Budd said.
The coalition and state lawmakers both point to the substantial overhaul of the state’s drug sentencing and mandatory minimum laws included in last summer’s habitual offender law as an example of the way forward.
The law, which created a three-strikes provision that removed the possibility of parole for repeat offenders of heinous crimes, was praised by Patrick as “balanced” and state lawmakers now point to it as the type of compromise needed to reach consensus on further corrections changes.
“That debate really opened a door, that I think can be opened even wider, in terms of sentencing reform,” said state Representative Brad Hill, of Ipswich, who helped broker the final compromise on the habitual offender bill.
Hill, a Republican, said that seeing how other states, specifically Texas, were able to implement treatment and reentry programs for drug offenders in order to close prisons and cut costs “opened [his] eyes” to the need for Massachusetts to reach compromise on changes to the prison system.
Despite ongoing pressure from some prosecutors to remain “tough on crime,” Hill said state legislators understand that no longer means rejecting all efforts to reduce sentences for some offenders.
“The mindset is very clear,” he said. “We want to take the most heinous criminals off the streets and put them behind bars. Everyone else, we want to help.”