THE STATE MUST confront racial disparities in imprisonment rates and move to “reimagine” a flawed criminal justice system to focus less on incarceration and more on lowering recidivism, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants said on Thursday.
Delivering his third annual address on the state of the judiciary since becoming the Commonwealth’s top judge, Gants announced that Harvard Law School dean Martha Minow has agreed to helm an independent research team examining racial and ethnic disparities in incarceration rates, which are greater in Massachusetts than in the country as a whole.
Gants said that while the incarceration rate for blacks nationally in 2014 was 5.8 times greater than for whites, in Massachusetts that rate was 8 times greater for blacks than whites. For Hispanics, he said, the incarceration rate nationally was 1.3 times greater than for whites, but nearly 4.9 times greater in Massachusetts.
“We need to find out why,” Gants said to a gathering sponsored by the Massachusetts Bar Association that included judges, lawyers, and legislators at the John Adams Courthouse.
He said the court system would provide Minow and her research team with any data they need for their review. “We need to learn the truth behind this troubling disparity and, once we learn it, we need the courage and the commitment to handle the truth,” Gants said.
Gants also hailed an ongoing review of criminal justice policy being led by the Council of State Governments, calling it a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine a flawed system and to enact constructive reform.”
The review was initiated in August 2015 at the invitation of Gants, Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate President Stan Rosenberg, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo. The Council of State Governments has carried out such reviews in more than two dozen states as part of efforts to reduce corrections costs while also improving public safety through strategies aimed at lowering recidivism rates.
The four state leaders met for more than two hours on Monday in Baker’s office to discuss progress with the review. The goal is to unveil reform legislation in January when the new legislative session begins.
Gants has been outspoken in calling for repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenders. He has argued that such laws strip judges of the discretion to evaluate the unique circumstances of each case.
While awaiting the Council of State Governments recommendations, he said the judiciary has moved to improve sentencing practices that are under its control. He said every department of the Trial Court that handles criminal cases “has established best practice principles for individualized evidence-based sentencing, and is in the process of training its judges in implementing these best practices.”
To do more to improve sentencing practices and reduce recidivism, however, he said “we will need statutory changes and a realignment of criminal justice resources from incarceration to post-release supervision.”
Speaking after his address, Gants said he was “encouraged” by this week’s meeting on the Council of State Governments review. He said the focus of the recommendations is likely to be less on sentencing reforms and more on the “back end” of the system that relates to policies and practices when offenders are released from prison.
“All except those who committed first degree murder are going to be released,” he said. “We need to think about the fact that they’re going to be released, and setting conditions of probation, and the [Department of Correction] needs to think about them in designing programs. And in all of this you need to be focusing on the fact that we need to be putting that person in the best position to succeed.”
In his speech, he praised a move last term by the Legislature to remove automatic suspension of drivers’ licenses for drug offenders, and said other so-called “collateral consequences” and court fees should be removed. “If we are committed to reducing recidivism, we should be lending defendants a helping hand to enable them to get back on their feet, not weighing them down with punishing collateral and financial consequences,” Gants said.