Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Lowering the cost of mass incarceration

State governments across the country are finally waking up to the enormous financial and human cost of mass incarceration. In recent years, at least 27 states have rolled back mandatory-minimum laws and other “tough-on-crime” legislation that has turned the United States into the world’s biggest jailer. The reason? At a cost that typically runs more than $55,000 a year per inmate, even conservative states are balking at the expense of swollen prison populations.

That’s one reason the “justice reinvestment” movement is gaining steam. Across the country, activists and lawmakers are pushing for reforms aimed at sending fewer people to prison, redirecting money to address social problems at their source.

State lawmakers in Texas redirected money earmarked for new prisons toward drug and alcohol treatment programs. In Pennsylvania, they tweaked mandatory minimums so that inmates could be sent to boot camp or recidivism-reduction training instead of prison.

Here in Massachusetts, the Justice Reinvestment Act, sponsored by state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, a Democrat from the Second Suffolk District, and state Representative Mary Keefe, a Democrat from Worcester, takes a similar smart approach. The act, which will be publicly heard on Wednesday by the judiciary committee, would repeal mandatory minimums for some drug offenses and reduce some nonviolent felonies — such as shoplifting something worth more than $250 — to misdemeanors. But the most innovative thing about the bill is that it would reinvest the money saved into a trust fund to bolster job training, education, and drug treatment programs in the communities that need it most.

Although questions remain about exactly how those savings would be calculated and spent, the concept is attractive. Of the 9,156 inmates who were serving time in Massachusetts state prisons in January, 2,083 were convicted of nonviolent property or drug offenses. If even a fraction of them could be transferred to a less restrictive setting, taxpayers could save money, and prison inmates could get a headstart on rebuilding their lives. If we made bigger investments in drug treatment and law-abiding livelihoods, fewer people would be on a path to prison.

Advocates of justice reinvestment in Massachusetts should study what has worked — and not worked — in other states. The Justice Reinvestment Act is modeled after Proposition 47 in California, where more than 4,300 state prisoners have been resentenced and released since the ballot measure passed last November. Hundreds of thousands of former felons have applied to get drug convictions revised or erased, a step that could help them rebuild their lives.

But Proposition 47 has also come under fire from law enforcement officials who say drug addicts now have little incentive to seek help, since they no longer have felonies or jail terms hanging over their heads in court. The number of addicts who agree to participate in drug court has reportedly plummeted in California, while the homeless population has risen. Massachusetts lawmakers should examine California’s experience and find ways to avoid such unintended consequences.

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