Saturday, December 03, 2011

Three Strikes Bill, Prison Reform and Crime Reduction in Massachusetts

Three Strikes Bill, Prison Reform and Crime Reduction in Massachusetts
Senate Bill: S.2054 –
“An act relative to habitual offenders, sentencing and improving law enforcement tools.”
The  “war on drugs” and  “toughness on crime” are  twin phrases that capture the sentiments  commonly associated  with the need to implement adequate public  safety policies with regards to crime. Everyone agrees that crime must be prevented or reduced if individuals and communities are to be protected.  The process with regards to developing strategic measures varies as much as the implications of the measures implemented.  Two strategies have prevailed: the extremely punitive method with less emphasis on rehabilitation characterized as “toughness on crime”, and the restorative method with the emphasis on rehabilitation and wholistic reintegration.  Both methods have their disadvantages if taken to the extreme.
                Elements of the extremely punitive method include the “3-strikes you are out” law to convey toughness on crime. Elements of the restorative method include the emphasis on restorative justice and rehabilitation of the offender.  The best option is a wholistic approach to crime that analyzes both methods and derives the most possible solution that will lead to prevention and reduction in crime while highlighting the need to rehabilitate and adequately reintegrate the prisoner back into society as a viable and contributing citizen, thus reducing the high rate of recidivism. It is in this light that the passage of the 3-Strickes bill: S.2054 in the Massachusetts Senate and House must be analyzed.
                On Thursday November 10th, 2011 the Massachusetts Senate voted unanimously to pass  S. 2054: “An act relative to habitual offenders, sentencing and improving law enforcement tools.” The bill has passed in the House and is at the moment with the Conference Committee.   Prison reform advocates, including The Center for Church and Prison have come to see this bill, in its long-term implications as less benefiting to the State of Massachusetts for the following reasons:  
Parole eligibility for lifers, would increase from 15 to 25 years and further crowd our prisons. Increasing parole eligibility from 15 to 25 years will cost nearly a half million dollars per prisoner ($46,000 per prisoner per year + increasing annual costs x 10 years). There is no evidence-based research which has demonstrated that such long sentences prevent crime. Massachusetts prisons are already overcrowded. While other states including New Jersey, New York, Michigan, South Carolina, Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi (and others) have cut prison costs through evidence-based practices, saving hundreds of millions of dollars and reducing crime,  Massachusetts taxpayers will  be footing the bill for the next twenty or thirty years.
Mandatory post release supervision would be forced upon ALL people incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons, thus increasing the revolving door of recidivism: The proposed mandatory post-release supervision could cost approximately $11.6 million per year just for new parole officers but even greater and uncalculated costs would be incurred through speeding up a former prisoner’s return to prison due to the increased number and kinds of infractions for parole violations under the bill.
Implications of S. 2054 in other States: 
·  Similar failed policies of other states, such as California, which passed mandatory post-release supervision and “three strikes,” while not reforming mandatory minimum drug sentences.
·  The combination of these actions, similar to S.2054, caused a prison building boom of 24 new prisons in 25 years.
·  The bankrupting of California’s schools, infrastructure and health care as a result of these misguided policies and sentencing practices.
·  California is now under a Federal Court order to “realign” their prison population by 30,000 prisoners this year. Is this what we want for the future of Massachusetts?
The former inmate will be burdened with the weight of mandatory post-release supervision in addition to the weight of CORI. The burdened of CORI is reflected in the difficulty of individuals with conviction record to be employed and to experience some form of appreciable economic mobility especially for men of color who make up the bulk of those incarcerated. This bill does not address the additional implications of mandatory post-release supervision and the likelihood to affect employment possibilities for those already burdened with the implications and consequences of CORI.  The Bill does not answer the question as to whether mandatory post-release supervision will appear on the record of the individual with CORI when they go to seek employment. Neither does it answer the question when will mandatory post-release supervision end or set conditions to end mandatory post-release supervision.
S. 2054 has the potential to lead to more over-crowding in Massachusetts prisons with increase in the rate of recidivism. In the absence of a coherent, preventive and rehabilitative provision as fundamental to the implementation of S. 2054 towards public safety  and reintegration of former prisoners, this bill, with its emphasis on “toughness on crime” does not take into consideration its multiple implications and the potential for increase in poverty, breakdown of the minority family structure, increase in crime and unemployment and long-term disruption of public safety.
Mandatory Minimum Sentences would HARDLY experience any reforms:  The bill relies on a system of harsh and rigid sentences for people convicted of drug offenses. Among other negative consequences, it will mean that prisons will remain packed with prisoners who could be paroled.  The bill would not allow anyone convicted of a drug offense who is sentenced to mandatory minimums after the law takes effect to be eligible for parole, work release or earned good conduct credits. This means no progress to the current overly harsh "one size fits all" sentences. As with people convicted of other crimes, those who are convicted of drug offences should have access to work release and earned good conduct credits throughout their sentences.
The bill does not reduce the school zone from 1,000 feet to 100 feet. Instead it proposes reducing zones just to 500 feet which will not do enough to offset the "urban penalty" paid by city residents, and will mainly help only those who live in suburban or rural areas. In order to effectively work to shift drug offenses away from protected places such as schools, the zones need to be relatively small in order to effectively move offenses away from protected areas.
The Center for Church and Prison proposes the following suggestions in light of  S. 2054:
·  Strategic solution development and intervention leading to prevention and rehabilitation.
·  Emphasis on education/training  and job readiness programs,
·   Job creation for individuals with CORI as a public safety measure.
·  Education and employment opportunities for former prisoners to experience some form of economic mobility to reduce the chances for them to engage in illegal means of income generation. 
·   Higher education and economic mobility has higher potential to reduce recidivism as strategic means to public safety.
The passing of  S. 2054 will be extremely  grave  for minority communities who are the highest amount of those incarcerated in the Massachusetts prison system. Blacks and Hispanic make up more than half of those incarcerated in Massachusetts in stark contrast to their population counts in the state of Massachusetts. In light of the above, The Center for Church and Prison in collaboration with several prison reform advocates and organizations see  S. 2054 as detrimental  to  long-term public safety . While the intentions of S. 2054 is to prevent and reduce crime towards public safety, this enthusiasm towards toughness on crime must be tempered with an  understanding of the negative implications of  S. 2054 in terms of financial cost,  increase in crime, prison overcrowding, a high rate of recidivism, the existential, social  and financial implications on families and the community.
Call You Senator or Representative and tell them S. 2054 provides no preventive mechanism but will eventually undermine public safety in the long run.
Main State House Number
The Center for Church and Prison is a resource and research center working towards community revitalization through prison reform, and strategic solution development and intervention in the high rate of incarceration and recidivism affecting especially men and youth of color in the United States criminal justice system. Visit our website for more information at: 
Rev.  George Walters-Sleyon
Executive Director: The Center for Church and Prison
Part of this Article was published in the Baystate Banner: