Who’s Leading the Fight Against Mass Incarceration?

We are thrilled that Roca will be the 2016 BBA Adam’s Benefit’s Public Service Honoree.   Roca is a wonderful organization that works to “disrupt the cycle” of incarceration and poverty by helping young people in the Greater Boston area transform their lives.  Roca works with at-risk youths aged 17-24, many of whom are on the streets, have a history of legal problems, are involved in gangs, have dropped out of school, and/or are young parents.  The organization intervenes based on a scientific, data-driven model that has been proven effective at getting these young people the support, education, and jobs they need to stay out of trouble, earn a living, and have a positive impact in their communities.  Most importantly, Roca’s system works. Since its founding in 1988, the organization has helped more than 18,000 young people change their lives.

Roca’s important work complements our own policy efforts.  We have written before about the BBA’s position opposing mandatory minimums and our efforts to remove them in Massachusetts.  Earlier this summer, we were part of the discussion in the legislature, when BBA President Julia Huston provided testimony at a public hearing on mandatory minimum drug sentences.  In recent weeks, we have seen some momentum building around this issue on Beacon Hill.  We learned that Governor Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, and SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants all signed onto a letter asking the U.S. Department of Justice and the Pew Center for the States to review and analyze Massachusetts criminal-justice policies, making recommendations on what works well, what doesn’t, and what changes can be made to improve the system. Though the timeline for this report remains unclear, we are hopeful it can make a difference this legislative session (watch a video of the Governor speaking about this study).

Senate President Stanley Rosenberg has been particularly vocal about the need for so-called “justice reinvestment” – changing policies to reduce incarceration and using the attendant monetary savings on programs and initiatives to further that cause.  By many accounts it costs around $40,000 a year to incarcerate an offender, while other programs, such as parole, are far less expensive.  Rosenberg points to states such as Texas, Washington, and Oregon as models of this movement, and is pushing for Massachusetts to follow their lead.  So what have these states done to fix their sentencing models?

Texas

Texas managed to dramatically reduce its prison population and incarceration rates with changes only to its incarceration policies, and not its sentencing regime.  Until recently, the number of inmates in Texas was booming: the state’s prison population grew from 50,000 in 1990 to 173,000 in 2010.  Texas was building prisons as fast as it could, but still many prisoners were transferred to for-profit prisons in other states.

Recognizing that this growth was unsustainably expensive, Texas lawmakers devised a treatment system.  They increased the amount of space in drug treatment programs and created intermediate sanction facilities, all at a fraction of the cost of warehousing inmates.  They also increased the amount of pre-trial diversion programs for people suffering from mental health illnesses and drug addiction.  These reforms have resulted in large drops in the prison population, the closing of a number of prisons, and a nearly 6% drop in the recidivism rate.  Crime is now at the lowest rate since 1968 and the closure of three prisons has saved $3 billion.

Washington

While Washington may have been a leader in drug law reform, becoming one of the first states to legalize recreational use of marijuana in 2012, it still has a way to go with sentencing reform.  According to a recent study, one in five prisoners in Washington is serving a life sentence, compared to one in nine nationally.  This is largely the result of the 1984 Sentencing Reform Act, which eliminated parole, and two subsequent voter-approved initiatives – the 1993 “three strikes” law, mandating life without parole for three serious felony convictions, and the 1995 Hard Time for Armed Crime law, requiring mandatory sentences for gun crimes.

The report also found a disparate impact on racial minorities (28% of those serving life without parole sentences are African-Americans although they comprise only 4% of Washington’s population) and exorbitant expense (an average life sentence costs $2.4 million per prisoner).

The Legislature appears to be taking notice.  Earlier this year, the House approved a bill to amend the “Hard Time for Armed Crime” law to give judges more discretion.  If enacted, the bill would permit judges to depart from the currently mandatory additional 18 to 60 month prison time in all every gun-related felonies if they feel the mandatory sentence enhancement results in a “clearly excessive” sentence.

Oregon

In only the last couple of years, Oregon has made major strides to curb its mandatory sentencing regime.  The state had operated under its so-called Measure 11 structure since 1994, whereby there were long mandatory sentences for 16 designated violent and sex-related offenses, “earned time” was prohibited, and juvenile offenders were tried in adult court.

As a result, the state built a prison system widely recognized as a national leader – “the system uses prison sparingly, locks up the right people and helps keep them from reoffending.”  Even though Oregon ranked well nationally in many statistics – holding the lowest recidivism rate, and ranking 33rd nationally in incarceration, incarcerating people at a rate that was 25% lower than the national average – it was still spending too much.  In 2013, lawmakers approved reforms to Measure 11, cutting sentences for crimes such as marijuana possession and felony driving, giving judges more discretion.  The result has been a decrease in prison populations and some savings that are being funneled to local governments for crime prevention measures.

As you can see, the sentencing policies for each of these states have their pros and cons.  They are all worth considering as Massachusetts prepares to reform its own policies.  We look forward to becoming the model for other states, and, hopefully, one without mandatory minimums.  In the meantime, we hope you will join us in a few months when we honor Roca for their outstanding work to keep young people out of the criminal justice system altogether.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association