What the CSG found was staggering. Fewer than half of those incarcerated in state prisons complete the recidivism-reduction programming recommended for them prior to their release. People involved in the criminal justice system (at every stage) have high substance abuse and/or mental health treatment needs that are going unaddressed. Our state lacks a standardized system for collecting data at all levels of the justice system, making tracking trends and outcomes difficult. Of course, making changes to all of these aspects of our system should be a priority.
But what the CSG didn’t find, or rather, what it was never tasked with looking into, is just as troubling. Absent from the CSG study was any focus on front-end problems, like the cash-bail and pretrial process, or sentencing reforms, like eliminating mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases and raising the felony threshold for low-level property crimes. Without a holistic look at how our justice system operates, from the beginning of the pipeline to the end, we are bound to continue the kinds of costly, racially disproportionate, and unjust policies that have brought us to the realities we’re facing today.
While Massachusetts is sometimes lauded for a low overall incarceration rate compared to other states, we must look, again, at what this perspective leaves out. Incarceration in every US state is significantly higher than in many other countries. Our own incarceration rate has tripled since the 1980s, before the “tough on crime” era picked up steam, and exceeds that of China, Canada, and Germany by significant margins. For some perspective, if the Bay State was a country, we’d be among the top 15% highest per capita incarcerators in the world.
Where our own residents are concerned, decades of racially biased sentencing policies have had an overwhelming and irrefutable impact on communities of color, both in regard to the individuals we are locking up and to the neighborhoods they leave behind. While Blacks and Latinos make up less than one-fifth of the state population, they account for more than half of the incarcerated population in our state, and they represent about 75% of those convicted of drug crimes that carry a mandatory minimum sentence. Addressing these issues must also be a priority.
Following the release of the CSG report in February, which provided a starting point of “low hanging fruit” criminal justice investments, and looking forward to the public hearings on a variety of criminal justice proposals slated to commence in the coming months, we must make a collective decision to make comprehensive reform a real priority. We must fight for a package that includes pretrial and sentencing reforms at its core, and we must do it this session.
I was proud to join my colleagues in the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, the House Progressive Caucus, the Harm Reduction and Drug Law Reform Caucus, and the Women’s Caucus’s Justice Involved Women’s Task Force at a press conference last week to stake out this agenda in the legislature. It is going to take a significant effort on our part to maintain this momentum, and to work with House and Senate Leadership to craft legislation that will accomplish our goals. But there is no issue more worthy of our efforts, and no time left for inaction.
Sonia Chang-Diaz State Senator, Second Suffolk District