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Criminal Justice Reform Makes Its Way Through Massachusetts Legislature

Criminal justice reform legislation is making its way through the Massachusetts legislature. 

Governor Charlie Baker and the Massachusetts Legislature commissioned the Council of State Governments to issue a report on the state’s criminal justice system in 2015. In March of this year, it found Massachusetts spends the most on young adults in its jails, and has the highest re-arrest rates.

The legislature came up with two different bills on ending witness intimidation, reducing the threshold for felony larceny, limiting solitary confinement and expunging records for young people, among other issues.

The state Senate passed its version in October, followed by the House in November. The legislation now heads to conference committee.

Before the Senate’s vote, nine of 11 Massachusetts district attorneys said the bill “undermines the cause and pursuit of fair and equal justice for all, largely ignores the interests of victims of crime, and puts at risk the undeniable strides and unparalleled success of Massachusetts’ approach to public safety and criminal justice for at least the last 25 years.” The DAs backed the House’s more moderate legislation.              

The legislature is on recess for the holidays. Bills do have a history of dying during this time, and State Senator Adam Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, says this can’t be one of them.

“When you talk with the sheriff here and sheriffs across the county, one of the biggest problems is that a majority of the folks who come through our doors have behavior and mental health problems,” Hinds says.

Hinds and Berkshire County Sheriff Tom Bowler spoke earlier this month at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington at an event hosted by Berkshire Community College’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Compared to other states, Massachusetts has a low incarceration rate, but ranks 46th in equal juvenile jailing, which means minority populations, especially blacks, are jailed more often.

“Look, if there is a youth encountering the criminal justice system, there is probably a better way to handle it so that they are not burdened with a record starting very early in their lives,” Hinds says.

In an attempt to improve those numbers, Hinds says the omnibus bill retroactively reduces mandatory sentences, includes bail reform and incorporates 18-year-olds into the state’s juvenile justice system.

“And this is empowering judges also to say that they can also make a choice as well despite what is being brought up in front of them, in fact that this individual needs to be getting counseling and then of course treatment when it comes to individuals experiencing addiction,” Hinds says.

Sheriff Bowler, also a Democrat, says 90 percent of his roughly 400-person inmate population has a substance abuse problem. More and more of the jail’s programs are being directed toward promoting drug and mental health treatment.

“The average stay of an inmate is anywhere between five to eight months. Gives us a short window to do the things that we have to do,” Bowler says. “Our primary focus: to take those individuals and provide them with the skills and resources that they need to be reintegrated back into the community. A better person when they leave then when they came in.”

Overall, Bowler says inmate numbers are down.

The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth says that’s strange, because budgets are up, which means more funding is necessary to meet the needs for each individual. Berkshire County had the highest total expenditure in the state per inmate in fiscal year 2016 at $87,500.

Bowler argues Berkshire County is one of two counties statewide that operates within its annual budget of about $17.5 million.

“Even though you are awaiting trial, there are so many things you can do and accomplish to make yourself look better in the eyes of the courtroom or in the eyes of the judge by the time you get there,” Bowler says.

Berkshire County Jail has more than 100 programs and services. The hardest thing for inmates is finding a job and housing on the outside.

Senator Hinds says the bill creates a trust fund for increasing police and community funding, in addition to the $3.5 million more allocated in the state budget.

“What we create in savings through these reforms will be directly reinvested in communities impacted by the War on Drugs, in communities disproportionally by crime and essentially saying what are the ways we are going to lift up, not lock up,” Hinds says.

In 2016, state corrections education was zeroed out. Bowler says in Berkshire County education programs are funded entirely by grants, which are few and far between. 

“It’s ridiculous,” Bowler says, “and it’s not – we certainly do not have enough funding.”

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