The MassCJRC Journal

A Monthly Newsletter from the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition
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At State House forum, leaders respond to new evidence with calls for corrections reform

Over the past two decades, US incarceration rates doubled and crime rates fell by half. But the relationship between rising incarceration and falling crime isn't the even swap that the numbers suggest. Yesterday, the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition hosted over 200 members of the criminal justice community at the State House for a dialogue on findings from a recent study by the Brennan Center demonstrating that the increased use of incarceration played a limited role in the drastic drop in crime.

photo by Christopher Huang


Brennan Center researchers took on the daunting task of using data to pin down what, exactly, caused crime to decline. They found that incarceration had a negligible effect. In her presentation of the report, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Senior Consul at the Brennan Center, identified factors like an aging population, decreased alcohol consumption, and growth in income all contributed more to the falling crime rate than more jail time. Incarceration only accounted for about a 5 percent drop in crime in the 90's and played virtually no role in further reductions in crime from 2000 onward.


As Bruce Western's research presented at the Coalition's second annual summit last March documents, the percentage of people confined in US prisons and jails is unprecedented. The Brennan Center latest findings show how we have reached the point where we are sending low-level offenders to prison with essentially no preventative effect on crime.


photo by Christopher Huang

Former Congressman William Delahunt moderated a discussion on these research findings by first sharing how as Norfolk County District Attorney he opposed mandatory minimum sentences-a major contributor to the growth in the prison population-because he believed they contradicted the spirit of individually tailored justice, a hallmark of the American legal system.


Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern's Institute on Race and Justice, noted that the Brennan Center study confirms concerns that his research has raised about the effects of mandatory minimums since the earliest days of their adoption.


Leaders assembled for the dialogue also discussed the consequences of over-relying on incarceration to manage societal problems that are best addressed outside of correctional settings. Observing that "The hallmark of any thriving society is how you care for those who are most compromised," Suffolk County Sheriff Steven Tompkins noted that 85 percent of his inmates have substance abuse disorders and over 40 percent struggle with mental illness and argued that prisons are not designed to treat these conditions.


All agreed that Massachusetts must reform its corrections system to increase efficiency. Describing how structural challenges in the state budget present a new fiscal reality that will necessitate tough choices, Michael Widmer, former president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, pointed out that prisons have hefty capital funding beyond the frequently cited operating costs.


photo by Christopher Huang


Yesterday's lively conversation in Gardner Auditorium occurred on the eve of a Judiciary Committee hearing scheduled for the same location next Tuesday at 1 pm. The Committee will hear several bills with provisions that aim to reduce the state's prison population by reducing mandatory minimum and redirecting resources toward diversion, rehabilitation, and reentry services. 




More from the CJRC State House Forum


The State House News Service reports on the unified concerns raised by leaders at the event.


Boston Neighborhood Network News features interviews with all five speakers at the event, exploring the doubts raised during the forum about the benefits of longer prison stays. BNN News also sat down for an interview with MassINC's Research Director Ben Forman to discuss the state's current corrections system and the future of reform.


On Capitol Hill


Congressional leaders introduce the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, which aims to return access to Pell grants for qualified incarcerated individuals across the country.


The Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act (CJMHA), another bipartisan bill recently filed in Congress, aims to improve accessibility of mental health services for people involved in the criminal justice system.


In the States


The MacArthur Foundation awards 20 jails across the country grants of $150,000 each to be used to find innovative approaches to reducing the amount of people unnecessarily behind bars.


In an editorial, the New York Times says that it is clear that a national movement for sentencing and prison reforms has arrived if even states in the Deep South are embracing change.


Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoes legislation intended to prevent law enforcement abuse of power, including legislation to allow felons to become registered voters and a bill aimed at limiting civil asset forfeiture. 


Nebraskan senators abolish the death penalty after overriding a veto by Governor Pete Ricketts, becoming the 19th state to end the practice.




The Boston Globe editorializes in favor of expungment for juvenile records, another step toward victory for the Teens Leading the Way Coalition.


The Huffington Post recognizes the Hampden County jail in Ludlow for reducing its inmate population by 30 percent from 2008 to 2014 with comprehensive re-entry programs.


In the Media


Mona Lynch writes about the use of mandatory minimums by federal prosecutors in a New York Times opinion column.


NPR reports on how Baltimore and Ferguson increase momentum for criminal justice reform.


The Atlantic asks why we have such big gaps in our national criminal justice data collection. 


Time sees promise in the growing bipartisan coalition of stakeholders demanding reforms in the criminal justice system, but has yet to see a plan.


Criminal justice reform has gained nationwide attention, but the NYT sees a looming enemy to the consensus-the presidential election.


The New Yorker takes a deep look into Milwaukee D.A. John Chisholm's strategy to reduce racial disparity in prison populations, dubbed 'The Milwaukee Experiment.'


From the Researchers


SEARCH issues a new report examining ways in which states are integrating data systems to improve the performance of their criminal justice systems.


The Vera Institute details the true costs of rising local jail populations.

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.

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