The MassCJRC Journal

A Monthly Newsletter from the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition
CourtHousePic 2
Mass. Voters want Criminal Justice Reform

Sensing an electorate shocked by what appeared to be an uncontrollable national crime epidemic, then candidate Bill Weld referred to himself as the "Attila the Hun" of crime issues with "no room to [his] right" during his successful campaign for Governor in 1990. Massachusetts voters latched onto Weld's "tough on crime" approach as Governor and didn't let go for nearly two decades.

Today the public is in a very different place on criminal justice issues. Overall crime rates have steadily dropped but our prison populations remain high, bloated by tough-on-crime sentencing policies. The ballooning cost of housing these prisoners crowds out other vital public policy priorities such as education and economic development.

Massachusetts voters understand the problems and support a smarter criminal justice system that focuses on cost-effective and data-driven practices to reduce crime and punish offenders. A recent MassINC poll found that "85 percent of Massachusetts voters support (52 percent strongly) a reform agenda that includes a focus on rehabilitation, increased use of probation, reduced sentences for non-violent criminals and drug users, and judicial discretion instead of mandatory minimum sentencing."

A whopping 87 percent of independent and 86 percent of women voters support reforming the criminal justice system, with 61 percent of independents and 65 percent of women seeing prevention and rehabilitation as the best policy paths to reform. Astonishingly, in light of this overwhelming public support in those highly coveted demographics, not one candidate from either party running for governor and attorney general has broken from the pack on the issue.

Republican front-runner Charlie Baker, who is fervently trying to make inroads with women and independents, has yet to embrace criminal justice reform as a winning issue. If Mr. Baker is truly "cut from the same cloth," as his former boss he should look to seize the current zeitgeist and make "right on crime" the new Massachusetts Republican mantra. This has been working for Republican governors in other states, like Texas and South Dakota.

The low wattage given to criminal justice reform issues is even more surprising in the three-horse-race for the Democratic nomination. Seeing it as "one issue that's breaking in Democrats' direction" despite the party being "slow to pick up on it," a recent editorial in the Boston Globe practically pleaded with the field to "produce a forward-looking plan for rehabilitation of addicts and alternatives to incarceration."

To their credit, all three Democratic campaigns have developed reasonable and well thought out policy positions concerning criminal justice, but to date these positions have remained only white papers and press releases. Attorney General Martha Coakley, State Treasurer Steve Grossman, and Dr. Don Berwick should take the Globe's advice and make criminal justice reform a top tier issue. The party base they are trying to court may generously reward them come September; 91 percent of voters polled who identified as Democrats supported criminal justice reform, 75 percent supported reforms that send fewer people to prison, and 72 percent agreed that prevention and rehabilitation are the best policy paths to reform.

Criminal justice reform should be a central issue this election year. Candidates need to echo the voice of the electorate, put this issue front and center, and have a meaningful debate about how the Commonwealth should reform its expensive and ineffective criminal justice system. All indications point to this being a very tight gubernatorial election much like the 1990 Weld (50.2 percent)/Silber (46.9 percent) contest. That year embracing the public's concerns about crime helped push Weld over the top. This year, embracing the public's desire to reform the criminal justice system may make the same difference for one of the candidates.

Winthrop Roosevelt
Director of Public Affairs

On the Campaign Trail


Below you will find a review of the policy positions for each candidate running for governor and attorney general in November. This review focused on the main areas of recommendations for reform identified in a 2013 report from the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition - sentencing reform, programming & treatment, reentry & supervision, and uniform data collection & evaluation.


On Capitol Hill


The US Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to retroactively apply their decision to lower recommended sentences for non-violent drug offenders to include currently incarcerated inmates, making more than 46,000 inmates eligible for early release as soon as November 2015.


Two criminal justice reform bills aimed at reducing lengthy sentences for low-level drug offenses and granting eligibility for early release to low-risk inmates, have stalled in Congress until at least 2015.


US Sen. Cory Booker (D - NJ) and US Sen. Rand Paul (R - KY) introduced legislation to soften criminal justice rules on juvenile and nonviolent offenders by lowering sentencing guidelines and expunging the records of certain non-violent juvenile offenders.


In a joint opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan make the case for sentencing reform and urge congress to advance legislation before the mid-term elections.


In the States


Delaware Governor Jack Markell signed a package of criminal justice reform bills into law that look to address problems facing ex-offenders trying to re-enter the workforce, provide opportunities for temporary employment for ex-offenders while they look for full-time employment, and allow judges to decide whether concurrent or consecutive sentencing is appropriate.


Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed into law a bill that allows the state to enter into Pay for Success (PFS) contracts for public-private diversion programs, making the Sooner State one of only a handful of states that utilize this new financing system for criminal justice reform efforts nationwide.


Following reports of abuse in the solitary confinement systems in some of Wisconsin's prisons, state officials may be looking to join New York, Maine, Virginia, and a number of other states that have altered or reduced their use of solitary confinement.


A 4-3 ruling handed down from the Iowa Supreme Court states that Iowa judges' discretion may be invoked in the sentencing of juveniles convicted of crimes such as murder, robbery, and kidnapping. Judges must now take into account the juvenile offender's background, and are no longer required to subject juveniles to mandatory minimum sentences.


Advocates suggest that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett's Justice Reinvestment program hasn't gone far enough.


A Vermont interfaith group uses the pulpit to press the state's corrections commissioner for a better approach to re-entry.




A proposed bill in front of the state legislature would change the way the Commonwealth administers Medicaid to inmates and could help the state collect millions of dollars from the federal government while improving access to the program during and after incarceration.  


A juvenile sentencing reform bill (H 4307) heads to the Governor's desk. The legislation would make 14 to 17-year-olds convicted of first-degree murder eligible for parole in 20 to 30 years depending on the circumstances of the case.


In the Media

The New York Times calls the federal government to repeal its ban on marijuana in a Sunday Review editorial.


The New Yorker asks: "Does the alternatives-to-incarceration industry profit from injustice?"


From the Researchers


A new report from Pew looks at inmates maxing out of state facilities with no supervision. At 43 percent of offenders, Massachusetts places sixth from the bottom.


The Sentencing Project examines state responses to the Supreme Court ban on mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders.


The Criminal Justice Review delves into the issues that ex-offenders face upon re-entry into the workforce and society, specifically financial obstacles such as mandatory parole expenses. The study outlines the effects of not being able to meet those financial obligations on former prisoners' sentiments towards their future economic prospects. 

The Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition is a group of prosecutors, corrections practitioners, defense lawyers, community organizers, and businessmen and women working together to reform the Massachusetts criminal justice system. MassINC supports the work of the Coalition with research, polling, communications and outreach.

11 Beacon Street, Suite 500
Boston, MA 02108


Facebook   Twitter   LinkedIn