A welcome turn away from tough-on-crime era
This measure marks the end of the long, misguided “tough-on-crime” era in the Commonwealth, where politicians competed to prove they would lock up more criminals for longer periods of time than their opponents. Massachusetts should use this law as a first step toward creating a fairer criminal justice system, increasing community safety and improving political discourse on issues surrounding the re-entry of ex-offenders into society.
The law offers wide-ranging reforms, from making bail more affordable, to eliminating mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders, to making it harder for juveniles to be charged with serious crimes, to reducing solitary confinement. All of these reforms are designed to make our justice system fairer and more cost-effective, as well as ensuring that one mistake doesn’t condemn someone for the rest of his or her life.
Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, such a law would have been politically inconceivable. In 2002, then-gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney used his support for capital punishment to sway suburban voters concerned about crime. And in 1990, even otherwise socially-liberal gubernatorial candidate Bill Weld proudly supported the death penalty and bragged about wanting prisoners “reintroduced to the joys of busting rocks.”
For over two decades, no politician with ambitions for higher office dared oppose mandatory minimums or any other “tough on crime” measures. But now, the politics have changed. Falling crime rates have made Massachusetts much safer, and voters and politicians alike are rethinking overly punitive policies. For the first time in almost 50 years, candidates running for major offices want to reduce mandatory sentences instead of increase them. Criminal justice reform is poised to be a major issue in the race for Suffolk County district attorney, where candidates are competing to be the most pro-reform rather than the most pro-incarceration contender.
The turn away from the tough-on-crime era has been a bipartisan movement, with conservative elected officials and groups such Right on Crime, whose principles our organization supports, playing a crucial role in reframing the debate.
This political moment provides an opportunity to go further and make it easier for ex-inmates to find both jobs and housing – two keys to reintegrating them into law-abiding society.
A recent study found that ex-offenders who quickly gained employment during re-entry were 20 percent less likely to reoffend than those who remained unemployed. And yet, those re-entering society face enormous hurdles to finding employment, including lack of training and education, background checks, and occupational-licensing barriers. Creating housing opportunities is equally important, since most individuals released from prison cannot afford to buy or rent. As a result, ex-offenders usually rely on their families for housing after their release. Those without family support can easily become homeless, which increases their likelihood of reoffending.
Despite all the progress Massachusetts has made, there are still more opportunities for reform. Funding educational programs in correctional institutions, for instance, will likely reduce recidivism and save money currently being spent on incarceration.
In 1994, at the height of the tough-on-crime era, the federal Omnibus Crime Bill blocked Pell Grants for those who are incarcerated. By the next year, the number of incarcerated individuals with access to higher education fell by 44 percent. The Rand Corporation has since found that correctional education lowers the odds of inmates returning to prison by 43 percent. The fact that so many inmates are not receiving educational opportunities means that for decades, lawmakers have overlooked a policy solution that would reduce both government spending and recidivism rates.
Gov. Baker and the state Legislature deserve praise for recognizing the need to move away from the tough-on-crime paradigm. Moving forward, lawmakers should seize this political moment and make the Commonwealth a leader in effective, evidence-based criminal justice.