AT LAST MONTH’S second annual Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Summit, we heard two opposing views on the public safety impact of mandatory sentences for drug offenders. One camp, represented by Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, held that the practice has been a costly failure, with particularly dire consequences for minority communities. The other side, voiced by Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, argued that mandatory drug minimums were a response to lax sentencing by judges in the 1980s, which made it more difficult for law enforcement to shut down violent drug markets and devastated urban neighborhoods.
Criminologists agree that there is conclusive evidence that mandatory sentences for drug crimes, and more generally the move toward longer prison terms over the past two decades, have been a tragic mistake for the US. No other democracy incarcerates as many of its citizens, and yet Americans are far more likely to be victims of violent crime than citizens of other Western countries. Even more telling, other democracies had much lower violent crime rates when we began to institute mandatory minimums in the 1980s, and these countries still experienced a similar drop in offending during our get-tough era.
Facts like these are the reason why there is bipartisan support for reversing course. In this age of ideological gridlock, unheard-of alliances are forming in our nation’s capital and in statehouses across the country, all built on the single belief that we need to drastically reduce federal and state prison populations. The Coalition for Public Safety has the ACLU teaming up with Koch Industries, the Center for American Progress joining with Americans for Tax Reform, and the Ford Foundation aligning with the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
Proponents for keeping Massachusetts out of this movement and preserving mandatory sentences for drug crimes argue that our state has been an exception to the mass incarceration epidemic. The facts do not support this position.
Massachusetts does have a far lower incarceration rate than the US overall, but we have still tripled our incarceration rate since the early 1980s. Our rate is also more than double the United Kingdom’s and nearly five times higher than Germany’s.
Moreover, the Commonwealth’s disproportionately white and wealthy population relative to the rest of the country obscures the extent to which we have a problem. The incarceration rate for Latinos in Massachusetts (928 per 100,000) is higher than for Latinos in the US (831 per 100,000). While the state’s incarceration rate for black residents (1,502 per 100,000) is lower than for blacks in the US (2,306 per 100,000), this figure—which is six times higher than the state’s incarceration rate for whites—is still cause for alarm, especially when we consider the ripple effects. Over one-quarter of all black males in Massachusetts ages 25 to 54 are either unemployed or out of the labor force altogether; criminal records undoubtedly help explain why so many struggle to find work.
Mandatory sentences have a disparate effect: racial and ethnic minorities comprise less than one-third of all convicted offenders in Massachusetts, yet they make up three-quarters of all those sentenced under mandatory sentences for drug crimes.
The state’s district attorneys and others who believe mandatory sentencing is a useful tool are right that simply eliminating these laws will not solve our problem. Regardless of their position on sentencing statutes, criminal justice leaders should all be able to agree that in a number of fundamental ways our corrections system is broken and in need of major change. Two examples:
- As we have swept more offenders into overcrowded prisons, we have eliminated access to the programs in prison that support recovery and reentry. Evidence clearly shows that effective programs make inmates less likely to commit crimes when they return to the community.
- Scientifically validated risk assessments can tell us which inmates are likely to reoffend so that we can supervise them after release, reducing the likelihood that they create another victim. But we don’t provide effective supervision for all ex-offenders who need it. Nearly 40 percent of inmates leaving state prisons—where criminals with the most serious offenses are committed—return to our communities unsupervised. And we know that many of those who leave prison unsupervised are among the most dangerous, often returning directly from maximum security facilities, where conditions make it particularly difficult to successfully transition to a law-abiding life.
Addressing these problems will require data that the state’s criminal justice system does not collect, analyze, or make available. These data are critical to make informed decisions about how we use our limited public safety resources. All around the country states are using data to make difficult corrections reform decisions based on solid evidence. These states are reducing their prison populations and reinvesting taxpayer dollars to make people safer and more productive.
As highlighted in recent reporting in the Boston Globe, improving the state’s criminal justice data infrastructure will be no easy task. The Criminal Justice Reform Coalition believes it will require an interagency taskforce to help coordinate resources and establish uniform data collection protocols. Lawmakers can immediately set this critical effort in motion by including provisions establishing the body in an outside section of the FY 2016 budget.
Open debate about criminal justice policy is fundamental to the health of our Commonwealth. As the old saying goes, “many laws as certainly make bad men, as bad men make many laws.” To avoid this pitfall, we must revisit and revise sentencing statutes on a regular basis to keep pace with changes in offending patterns and new approaches to rehabilitation. Late last year, former governor Deval Patrick resurrected the Sentencing Commission to carry out this important work. To serve effectively, the Commission will need sound data upon which informed decisions can be made.
Benjamin Forman is the research director of MassINC, the publisher of CommonWealth magazine.