CJRC sat down with CommonWealth reporter Michael Jonas to talk about his cover story in the summer issue - Hard Time: Rethinking the Tough on Crime Approach. What follows is an edited transcript. Audio of our full conversation can
be found here.
Criminal justice reformers are calling for change backed up by hard data. Yet your article paints a picture of criminal justice policy over the past several decades driven mainly by flashpoints. Is Massachusetts ready to embrace a data-driven approach to criminal justice?
That's really the question we're going to learn more about over the next few weeks. The state is poised to join what's really become a national reassessment of criminal justice policy. I think a key question over the next few weeks is going to be whether we sign onto an outside evaluation conducted by an organization called the Council of State Governments.
The Council and the the Pew Center have now gone into some 30 states and done a really comprehensive review of their policies on criminal justice issues. They have applied an evidence-based lens to look at ways that states can save on corrections and also, at the same time, enhance public safety through better approaches to re-entry and dealing with offenders coming out of the prison system. Massachusetts has been a little reluctant, so far, to get in the flow of this national wave. Now we're waiting to see if state leaders can come to some sort of agreement on how to approach this.
Where do you see Governor Baker, Senate President Rosenberg, and Speaker DeLeo on criminal justice reform and bringing in the Council of State Governments? Are differences between them going to be a potential road block to reform?
I think it's likely that we're going to get some agreement to go ahead with this evaluation. They definitely don't agree on everything with regard to criminal justice issues. I think, just as we've seen with some other issues that they've dealt with over the last half year, there's going to have to be some compromise, they're going to have to find points of common agreement.
Mandatory minimum drug sentences have been the big issue in the debate so far. I'm sure it is one area where they're not going to find complete agreement. But there's a whole range of issues facing the criminal justice system. I think they will probably make an effort to move ahead in some areas where they can find agreement.
The Baker administration has been framing this issue in the context of Massachusetts's relatively low incarceration rate compared to the rest of the US. Do you think they're correct to frame the issue this way?
They're correct in the sense that Massachusetts has one of the lowest incarceration rates of any state. Whether that's the right way to frame the issue depends on how you see the problem overall. Massachusetts and the country overall have extraordinarily high rates compared to other Western democracies.
I think the Governor is actually interested in looking at some of these other issues especially around re-entry and recidivism. I had a chance to ask him about this quickly after an event the other day, and he brought up the fact that there's plenty of work that we have to do, and we should not be sitting back and resting on our laurels, pointing to this relatively low incarceration rate as if there's really nothing to be done in terms of reforming policies here.
Since your article was published, there's been a lot of noise at the federal level, mainly driven by the Obama administration. Do you think President Obama will be successful in bringing about meaningful reform? If so, what kind of trickle-down effect do you think it will have here in Massachusetts?
I think there is a lot of momentum nationally for change, as our story talked about and as you've been reading just this week. The President's done a whole series of events this month to put a spotlight on criminal justice reform. There's also a sort of an unusual left-right coalition coming together of liberals and conservatives thinking about change.
It does create a context for the debate here and raises the question of whether we're going to be part of this national reassessment or more bystanders to it. States have different problems and have different areas they need to examine, but it will raise the question of whether we're ready to move forward with whatever the Massachusetts version of reform will be.
On Capitol Hill
The Coalition for Public Safety holds a breakthrough conversation on criminal justice reform with a bipartisan group of senators as part of the Across the Aisle series.
President Obama assigns Attorney General Loretta Lynch the task of reviewing the use of solitary confinement in US prisons. In his speech at the annual convention of the NAACP in Philadelphia, the President asked, "Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day for months, sometimes for years at a time?"
President Obama commutes the sentences of 46 drug offenders, stating that they had already served sentences that did not match their crimes. Obama is also the first President to visit a federal prison, as part of an increasing effort to reform the country's criminal justice system.
In the States
Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo signs an executive order to work with the Council on State Governments to launch a comprehensive study of the state's criminal justice system using a justice reinvestment approach.
State lawmakers in Connecticut approve reforms to the criminal justice system. Among the updates is a proposal called Second Chance Society, promoted by Governor Malloy, which "reduces the penalties for drug possession and overhauls the pardons and parole system." President Obama singles out Governor Malloy for Connecticut's recent criminal justice reforms at the NAACP's national convention.
New York City creates a new program to supervise 3,000 low-risk defendants awaiting trial in the community rather than holding them on cash bail.
WBUR reports on several criminal justice reform proposals set to come before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, including plans to decriminalize some student behavior. Senate Brownsberger, co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, blogs on the data he is focused on as he considers reform bills in front of the committee.
The Boston Globe breaks down the numbers in the debate over mandatory minimums.
A bill that aims to screen students for substance abuse makes it through the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Committee at the State House.
A new domestic violence law enacted last summer is resulting in far fewer convictions, according to preliminary data from several district attorneys.
In the Media
The New Yorker profiles Patrick Nolan, a conservative criminal justice reform leader.
A story by The Marshall Project delves into the intricate and often secretive world of parole hearings. Contrary to the common court process of sentencing a person to prison, parole hearings operate under standards that are "much less clearly defined", reports WBUR.
The New York Times Magazine covers the ride home from prison.
From the Researchers
Pew releases a new report exploring Utah's criminal justice reform experience.
The Vera Institute issues a study analyzing the nation's first social impact bond recidivism reduction project, an effort to provide cognitive behavioral therapy to adolescents at Riker's Island.
Brennan Center researchers detail procedures to reduce racial disparities in local jails.