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Policy Library

Focus on Reducing Recidivism

February 04, 2016

We’ve spoken at length in this space about the BBA’s opposition to mandatory-minimum sentencing, which limits judicial discretion, applies one-size-fits-all solutions regardless of the facts and circumstances of each case, and contributed heavily to the explosive growth in prison and jail populations across the nation (with Massachusetts no exception) in the last decades of the 20th century.

Support has grown for reform of mandatory sentencing practices as the toll they have taken on individuals and their families, and the costs they impose on state budgets, have become clearer.  But the public debate on criminal-justice policies has broadened, to include a variety of other issues, such as: reform of the bail process, to make it more reflective of the true risk posed by a defendant and less disproportionately punitive toward the poor; use of evidence-based risk assessment tools to help determine the security classifications of inmates behind bars, and their appropriate level of supervision upon release; and ways to reduce recidivism and promote successful re-entry of the 90-plus% of those currently incarcerated who will ultimately return to society after incarceration.

There has been much movement in recent weeks on this last point.  In January, two different groups dedicated to in-depth analysis of criminal-justice data in Massachusetts publicly presented their findings.  And this past Saturday, at our annual John and Abigail Adams Benefit, the Boston Bar Foundation bestowed its 2016 Public Service Award upon Roca, a community-based non-profit organization committed to helping 17-to-24-year-olds succeed in re-integrating to society.  Read more about Roca here.

Founded in 1988 by CEO Molly Baldwin, who accepted the award for Roca during the event at the Museum of Fine Arts, Roca focuses on those youths, overwhelmingly men, who are at greatest risk of recidivism – gang members, school drop-outs, young parents.  Their outcomes-driven approach combines relentless outreach with data-driven evaluation, starting with the question, “Are we helping young people change behaviors to improve their lives — and how do we know?”  Roca recognizes that criminal involvement and poverty are intertwined, and they seek to disrupt that cycle, with the motto, “Less jail, more future.”

In 2014, Roca partnered with the state and outside investors to undertake the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Project, one of the nation’s first projects involving “social impact bonds,” which deliver private funds to non-governmental organizations on the promise that their work, and their expertise, can help save money in the end.  Essentially, if Roca is able to reduce recidivism and improve job skills for its target group of ex-offenders, the state will reward investors out of its criminal-justice savings.  If they are unable to do so, the investors will take the loss.  The project is set to run through 2020, but either way, Roca and the state government will gain valuable data on what works and what doesn’t, and Roca is using the funds to help grow its operation, which began in Chelsea, but has since expanded to other communities within Greater Boston, and to Springfield.

While Roca has been working with young people at the ground level, researchers at the public-policy think tank MassInc have been studying what the statewide data show about our re-entry practices in Massachusetts, with an eye toward how a better strategy can improve outcomes.  Last week, they held an event to announce the release of their latest report on criminal justice, Reducing Recidivism in Massachusetts with a Comprehensive Reentry Strategy, and to discuss its findings.

One of the report’s key takeaways is that our re-entry supervision resources are being distributed inefficiently: For example, ten percent of inmates are released to “dual supervision,” meaning they are redundantly required to report to both the Department of Probation (based on a sentence that included probation time after incarceration) and the Parole Board (for those who were released under their auspices).  These agencies operate independently, within two different branches of government (Parole under the executive and Probation under the judiciary).

Furthermore, the MassInc researchers classified released individuals by their assessed risk – low, medium, and high – and found, perversely, that the high-risk inmates were actually the most likely to be returned to the street with no supervision at all.  One factor is that in about half of the instances where a mandatory minimum applies, the judge imposes an “and a day” sentence, in which the maximum sentence is one day longer than the minimum.  As a result, the defendant effectively has no option of parole.

Bruce Western, Professor of Sociology at the Kennedy School of Government, then offered findings from his own research on the critical factors that deter recidivism.  Prof. Western categorizes them by age upon release, and looks at whether ex-offenders have mental-health or substance-abuse problems, whether they have employment, stable housing, or family support, and whether they participate in social programs.  One of his main conclusions is that families – and, in particular, older female relatives – should be supported as part of a typical re-entry plan, because they can have a very positive effect on outcomes.  Another focus should be older men – who are less likely to have such relatives in their lives and thus more likely to be socially isolated – especially those experiencing poverty, mental illness, or addiction.

The forum ended with a panel discussion that included Berkshire County DA David Cape less, MassINC Research Director Ben Forman, the BBA’s Civil Rights & Civil Liberties co-chair Rahsaan Hall of the ACLU of Massachusetts, representatives from Connecticut and Texas – two states that have recently reformed their criminal-justice policies – and Conan Harris, the Deputy Director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety Initiatives for the City of Boston, and himself an ex-offender.

While there appears to be growing momentum toward an overall re-evaluation of our own policies in Massachusetts, any major reform is likely to have to wait until 2017.  That’s because the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments plans to spend this year collecting and analyzing data and developing policy options, at the joint request of Governor Charlie Baker, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and SJC Chief Justice Ralph Gants.

Last month, their Massachusetts team gave dual presentations on their initial findings, to the full working group tasked with guiding their effort, and to the state’s standing commission on criminal justice, which includes Marty Murphy of Foley Hoag as the BBA’s representative.

Thus far, 23 other states have benefited from the Justice Center’s data-driven review process.  But each state presents a different picture, and the Center is careful to tailor their proposed recommendations to each state’s data and practices.   Their justice-reinvestment process seeks to identify areas where evidence-based solutions can yield cost savings, which can then be shifted toward programs that have proven their effectiveness at reducing recidivism while protecting public safety.

Though the Center’s Massachusetts work is still in its early work, their analysis has already produced some interesting findings.  For example, while the total incarcerated population is down 12% since 2006, all of that decrease has come from county houses of correction and jails; the number of sentenced inmates in state prisons has actually grown by 3% over that time.  And even at the county level, there is wide variation in population changes.  Meanwhile, they did detect a decrease at the state level over the past three years, but it’s too soon to tell whether this represents a true downward trend.

When the Center looked into recidivism, they noted that data are held by a great number of different agencies, and that, for the most part, those data are not made public.  The long-term trend shows recidivism rates holding steady, at about 40%, but the numbers from the past two years are lower; again, they could not say with any confidence that this will continue.

When it comes to supervision, the third area they’re looking at, the numbers show that while the number of parolees is down sharply in recent years, the population under probation supervision is on the rise.

The Center plans to continue its work on these and other findings and will report back to the working group throughout the year, with the goal of producing legislation that can be filed by the beginning of the 2017-18 legislative session.  We will, of course, continue to monitor all developments in this area, and report back to you here.

— Michael Avitzur
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association