For many people -- too many people -- prison is a place where you lock up the bad guys and forget about them. That attitude gained political currency in the 1990s and persists even in politicians who should know better. Those who know best what happens in our prisons tell a different story.
For many people -- too many people -- prison is a place where you lock up the bad guys and forget about them. That attitude gained political currency in the 1990s, and persists even in politicians who should know better.
Those who know best what happens in our prisons tell a different story. They see overcrowded prisons with revolving doors. Thanks to mandatory minimum sentences, misguided "truth in sentencing" laws and feel-good "tough on crime" policies, recidivism has soared, treatment and rehabilitation have been cut, post-release supervision has all but disappeared, and justice has suffered.
Massachusetts now spends nearly $1 billion on corrections, which doesn't include the cost to victims or the cost of running the courts. The prison population has quadrupled since 1999, to 11,000, and we are no safer as a result. More than half all prisoners are arrested again within three years of their release.
It's time we stopped "warehousing offenders so they come out more dangerous than they were when they went in," Gov. Deval Patrick said this week. A panel of experts invited to the State House for a symposium put together by the Mass. Bar Association agreed.
Some of the resistance to meaningful reform comes from district attorneys, who think filling the prisons is a way of keeping score. But the biggest problem is in the Legislature, where entrenched incumbents cower in fear that someone will call them soft on crime.
For years, that fear has paralyzed the committee chairs who could make sentencing reform happen, Sen. Robert Creeden and Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty.
"When the senator and I move on these issues, there's no one behind us," O'Flaherty told the Bar Association symposium. "They're gone."
O'Flaherty should look again. House Speaker Sal DiMasi and Senate President Therese Murray have endorsed reform of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses and elimination of tougher sentences for crimes committed within 1,000 yards of a school -- a gimmick that unfairly punishes offenders in urban areas.
Attorney General Martha Coakley, who no one considers soft on crime, argues that "truth in sentencing" laws make it harder for prosecutors to control dangerous offenders.
Lawyers, judges, sheriffs, academics and advocates agree that giving prisoners education and mental health and drug treatment are far more effective than long sentences at keeping criminals from offending again. Supervised parole reduces recidivism and saves taxpayer money. It costs $45,000 a year to house someone in a Massachusetts prison, money that could be far better spent turning today's criminal into tomorrow's productive citizen.
Leadership is about changing public attitudes, especially when they run counter to the public interest. It's time for Beacon Hill leaders to turn the growing consensus on sentencing reform into legislation that will make our criminal justice system more effective and our communities safer.