By Hon. Sydney Hanlon (ret.), Hon. Rosalind Miller (ret.), Deborah Ramirez, and Vincent Lorenti
In early 2020, just before the start of the pandemic, Professor Deborah Ramirez, of Northeastern University Law School, created the Law School’s Criminal Justice Task Force to address issues of criminal justice reform. She recruited more than 100 individuals, with representatives from the judiciary, the bar, academia, law enforcement and other government agencies as well as other public policy communities. Among the many subcommittees of that Task Force was one focused on issues of reentry – the substantial challenges facing individuals returning to the community from incarceration.
Disturbingly, the United States incarcerates significantly more people per hundred thousand than any other NATO country and, while Massachusetts has the lowest per capita incarceration rate in the nation (275 per 100,000), we still incarcerate 2.1 times more people than the United Kingdom and 2.6 times more than Canada. Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 68% of those who are released from incarceration are rearrested within three years. Arguably, this last statistic reflects a failure of the entire system to address those issues that led to incarceration to begin with – typically undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorder, mood disorder, and anti-social decision making. Those issues are often complicated by poverty, with its attendant issues of housing insecurity, lack of adequate educational and social supports for families in need, and other challenges.
More than 50 people have volunteered to work with the Reentry Subcommittee, with representatives of virtually every relevant group, including formerly incarcerated individuals. Over time, the Subcommittee’s work has focused in four major areas: securing resources for the Community Justice Support Centers (formerly the Office of Community Corrections, or OCC); educating judges and attorneys about the availability of reentry resources; helping to coordinate various groups to create a statewide “Coming Home Directory” that catalogues a variety of services (from food to housing to specialized resources for LGBTQI+ individuals); and creating, in cooperation with the Support Centers and the Suffolk County House of Correction, a training for returning individuals that will prepare them, eventually, for jobs in local businesses beyond the entry level.
Community Justice Support Centers
Vincent Lorenti is the Executive Director of the Community Justice Support Centers and he has been a key participant in the Subcommittee’s work. In 1996, the OCC, as the Centers were then known, was created to develop intermediate sanctions for convicted probationers – to provide more intensive supervision short of incarceration. Under Lorenti’s leadership, the Centers were renamed in July 2021 to reflect a new emphasis on supporting and providing assistance to people involved in the criminal justice system at all levels. There are currently 18 Centers across the state, and they offer referrals and support for education, employment, and cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as a variety of other services, including referrals for transitional housing. The Centers also help returning individuals with obtaining a Massachusetts identification card, which is necessary to obtain a host of state and other services. Further, the Centers are spread across the state to make them available to everyone; there are Centers in Barnstable, Pittsfield, Dartmouth, Taunton, Lawrence, Lynn, Haverhill, Greenfield, Springfield, Northampton, Framingham, Lowell, Woburn, Quincy, Brockton, Plymouth, Fitchburg, Worcester, and Boston (on the Roxbury/Jamaica Plain line).
At the time the OCC was originally created in 1996, it was meant only for individuals on active probation. Today it is also available to those on parole and, more recently, under the leadership of the late Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants, the Centers have begun to offer services to anyone who has been incarcerated, even if not on court or parole supervision. This means that an individual who may have chosen to serve additional time, rather than take an offer of a suspended sentence or probation, may go to the Centers for assistance upon release. Or, an individual who was held on bail for a period of time after pleading to a “time served” sentence – or who was released because the case was dismissed, or they were found not guilty – may go to the Centers for help. This is important because even a short period of incarceration disrupts people’s lives and undermines existing support systems, often causing an individual to lose a job or housing or family ties.
Under Lorenti’s leadership, the Centers have worked to implement evidence-based practices, conducting standardized assessments and then developing individual treatment plans for gender- and culturally-specific services, with a focus on cognitive behavioral skill development. Independent academic research by the UMass Chan Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania has documented the effectiveness of these procedures. In fact, the UPenn research showed a 26-36% reduction in recidivism for those at the Centers vs. individuals who were on regular probation.
Initially, the Centers’ mandate to provide reentry services to those who were not on probation or parole was “unfunded”; that is, the obligation was merely added to the Centers’ responsibilities without providing any additional money for those services. However, in 2022, under the leadership of Senator Will Brownsberger – and with considerable advocacy by the Reentry Subcommittee and others – the Massachusetts legislature designated $2 million for the Ralph Gants Reentry Services Program, to be operated by the Community Justice Support Centers. This was also made possible because of the contributions of the Shaw Foundation and the Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants Access to Justice Fund. The funds are now being used to provide treatment, education referrals, career counseling, and clinical case management for returning individuals.
In addition, Reentry Services Coordinators and Public Benefits Coordinators are being hired at each of the Centers. The Reentry Services Coordinators will be responsible for case management, mentoring coordination, and providing returning individuals with information about jobs, job training, housing, substance use disorder treatment, educational opportunities, medical insurance, cell phone assistance, mental health treatment centers, and identification cards. The Public Benefits Coordinators will help returning individuals apply for various public assistance programs, including Mass Health, DTA, and SNAP benefits, SSI/SSDI, and Veterans’ benefits. Finally, the Centers will also provide connections between organizations volunteering to mentor individuals and individual mentees, using web-based training developed by the National Center for State Courts for volunteer mentors.
A second focus of the Reentry Subcommittee, as noted, has been to develop education programs for judges and lawyers, focused on the availability of all the services at the Centers to individuals at every stage of the criminal justice process – from pretrial to reentry – along with exploring the opportunities for judges and trial lawyers to assist with reentry at every stage, including before the individual is incarcerated.
As part of that effort, the Education (Sub)Subcommittee worked to develop two programs – one for the Flaschner Judicial Institute (“The Role of the Judge in Successful Reentry”) and one for the Social Law Library (“After Incarceration: The Role of the Attorney in Reentry”). An essential part of each program is a thirty-minute video produced and directed by attorney Melina Muñoz Turco and featuring excerpts of extensive interviews with individuals discussing the substantial challenges they faced when returning from incarceration. The Flaschner Program was introduced by Justice Serge Georges, Jr., of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the Social Law Program was introduced by Chief Justice Stacey Fortes of the District Court.
Both programs were moderated by Judge Lisa Ann Grant, of the Dorchester Division of the Boston Municipal Court, and each panel included Vincent Lorenti, as well as Kristin Dame, Director of Private Social Work Services for the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS); Myriam Feliz, who was then an Assistant District Attorney and Supervisor in the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Chelsea Office; Rachelle Steinberg, Assistant Superintendent, Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department; and Shayla Mombeleur, Chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, at the Massachusetts Bar Association and then a Trial Attorney with CPCS.
A third project under development by the Reentry Committee is the Mapping Project, which is working to develop a “Resource App.” That App would allow a user to search for programs and services in a particular geographic area using parameters such as location, age, and service sought. Once the user has located a particular desired service, they can easily link to a mapping function that allows them to plan transportation via Google Maps.
The Resource App is designed to assist social workers, probation officers, judges, and returning individuals and their families to locate community support. For example, an individual might use the App to locate their closest age-appropriate mental health support group to obtain services. Or, perhaps to locate a different service that is further away, but more easily accessible by public transportation, or in an area that is safer for them. The App itself is designed to be simple and easy to use for anyone with access to the Internet. Currently in the Beta-testing phase of development, the Criminal Justice Task Force hopes to launch the App before the year is out.
Attorney Donna Cuipylo, who has spearheaded the Mapping Subcommittee, credits the multiple partners who have volunteered their time and services over the past two years with development and population of the App. This would not have been possible without the many Criminal Justice Task Force Partners and collaborators, including Kristen Dame of the Committee for Public Counsel Services who brought the App to the attention of our subcommittee, Nicole Siino who designed the App with the assistance of the Suffolk University Legal Innovation & Technology Lab under the direction of David Colarusso, the American Bar Association, and multiple volunteers who provided hours of technical assistance and shared their data, including Melinda Czaja, Katie Zafft, Amanda Coscia and Cheyenne Bourgeois of CJI, Keith Cross of Milkrow, and Dave McMahon of Dismas House, Worcester.
Jail to Jobs Pipeline
The fourth effort, “the Jail to Jobs pipeline”, is still in its infancy. In 2022, the Trial Court received a federal grant for $900,000 to fund a three-year project in partnership with two correctional agencies with facilities in Boston — the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, along with educational partner, the Benjamin Franklin Cummings Institute of Technology and, eventually, employer partners who will guarantee interviews for entry-level positions. The project will offer an innovative Career Technical Education program for justice-involved individuals in Massachusetts that will prepare for them jobs in the high-demand field of Information Technology. The next step will be to recruit Massachusetts employers willing to hire those coming out of prison and jail who need jobs and have received this specialized training.
All of this, of course, is just a beginning in addressing the challenges facing returning individuals, but Massachusetts is leading the way, as the only state in the country with a centralized and coordinated state-wide/state-funded reentry system that offers every person coming out of prison or jail the essential resources and services they need to become productive members of society.
The authors are all members of the Re-Entry Subcommittee of the Northeastern University Criminal Justice Task Force. Hon. Sydney Hanlon, a retired justice of the Appeals Court and Hon. Rosalind Miller, a retired justice of the Superior Court are the co-chairs. Professor Deborah Ramirez, of Northeastern University Law School, created the Law School’s Criminal Justice Task Force. Vincent Lorenti is the Executive Director of the Community Justice Support Centers.