Massachusetts criminal justice bill is welcome reform

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By Nancy Gertner, Vincent Schiraldi and Bruce Western

The Massachusetts Senate recently passed watershed legislation that, among other things, retroactively reduces mandatory sentences and incorporates 18-year-olds into the state’s juvenile court justice system. As researchers, educators, and former criminal justice practitioners, we think the legislation is on solid ground.

Nine of the state’s 11 district attorneys have expressed concern that curbing mandatory sentences and raising the juvenile court age would be a “return to the old and discredited ways of the past.” It is just the opposite.

Few studies have found a correlation between mandatory sentencing and public safety. Twenty-nine states have curbed mandatory sentences — including the deep-South states of Georgia, Louisiana, and South Carolina — saving millions of dollars in prison costs while crime rates continued to drop. Indeed, according to a report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, crime dropped faster from 2010 to 2015 in states with larger declines in incarceration.

True, as the DA letter suggested, Massachusetts already has a low incarceration rate, but that hardly means we should resist common-sense reforms designed to make the system fairer and safely reduce imprisonment.

While African-Americans and Latinos are incarcerated nationally at 5.1 and 1.4 times the rate of whites, African-Americans and Latinos in Massachusetts are incarcerated at 7.4 and 4.3 times the rate of whites. This means that the rate of disparity for blacks in Massachusetts is 45 percent higher than the national average, while for Latinos, it is more than three times the national average. Research shows that mandatory sentences contribute to these disparities because neutral judges’ hands are tied by prosecutors, whose prosecutorial decisions are made behind closed doors.

Whatever the rate of imprisonment, there was a four-fold increase in Massachusetts’ and other states’ prison populations between 1980 and 2015 (the last year for which national data is available) — contributing to what sociologist David Garland dubbed “mass imprisonment.” These trends led the National Academy of Sciences to conclude in a 2014 report: “The dramatic increase in incarceration has failed to clearly yield large crime-reduction benefits” and “may have had a wide range of unwanted consequences for society, communities, families, and individuals.”

Nor should Massachusetts congratulate itself on its treatment of young adults at the hands of the criminal justice system. Recent research by the Council of State Governments found that Massachusetts spends the most on young adults in its jails, yet they are incarcerated the longest and experience the worst re-arrest rates.

Developmental and neuroscientific research shows that the brains of these emerging adults are not fully mature until their mid-20s, mitigating, but not excusing, responsibility for their youthful misdeeds. Research has found that young adults assume the adult roles of spouse, parent, and breadwinner — all of which help them mature out of criminality — much later than in previous generations.

While the Commonwealth would be the first US state to include 18-year-olds in its juvenile justice system, it is hardly alone. Legislators in Connecticut, Illinois, and Vermont have proposed raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction beyond 18.

Massachusetts’ Department of Youth Services has long been considered one of the nation’s finest agencies for supervising juvenile offenders and has the experience to implement this proposal, since it already has youths up to age 21 in its custody. Incorporating all but the most violent 18-year-olds into this system would provide them with educational and rehabilitative programming that is largely absent in adult jails and that better serves public safety.

The Senate legislation is a step toward a more just and effective response to crime, and deserves strong consideration by the House and the governor.