A Promising New Direction for Justice Reform in Massachusetts

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Massachusetts is not notorious for overflowing prisons; nor is it a state where residents tune into the evening news to see police at war with frustrated locals amidst clouds of tear gas and burning vehicles. The Commonwealth might not fit the paradigm of most states that are the focus of national criminal justice reform today. However, we still have an enormous way to go to better manage our corrections system and improve the channels through which offenders re-enter our communities.

Yesterday, Massachusetts’ elected leadership confirmed they are working together towards this change with their public announcement of support for bringing the Justice Reinvestment Initiative to the Bay State.

Both the Governor’s office and leadership in both chambers of the legislature have rightly expressed their enthusiasm for working with the Council of State Governments (CSG), understanding the value this partnership would generate in public safety outcomes. An independent analysis would address critical concerns surrounding recidivism in the Commonwealth—an issue that was at the core of Pioneer’s most recent Better Government Competition.

The recidivism rate, or the percentage of those released from prison who are re-arrested within three years of being paroled, is currently around 40 percent in Massachusetts—in other words, 2 out of 5 parolees go back to prison within three years of getting out. Though crime rates have dropped to historic lows, we’re still seeing critical failures in re-entry. A data-driven, evidence-based analysis of our corrections system will help guide policymakers to the right conclusions on how to improve these system failures and steer us on the right course.

Reducing recidivism was a central focus of Pioneer’s Better Government Competition this year. We received a number of inventive entries and many of our winning ideas could have a significant impact on corrections performance and re-entry if replicated in the Commonwealth.

Our winning entrant, the San Francisco-based Five Keys Charter School (FKCS), is a program with great promise for inmates in the Commonwealth. As the nation’s first jailhouse-based charter school, the initiative brings education programming to the facilities, meaning the school’s budget does not have to cover typical school expenses such as rent, facilities, building maintenance, student transportation or security staff. The program has demonstrated enormous potential in reducing recidivism: Five Keys students recidivate at a rate of only 28%, compared to the California’s statewide rate of 68%. Student performance is just as promising: over the 2013-2014 school year, 58% of FKCS students improved their reading ability by an average of two grade levels.

Another idea with potential for replication in MA came from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PA-DOC), which shared the great success it’s had in making performance incentives for recidivism reduction a core element of their contracts with privately-run community corrections facilities (CCFs). The result was a reduction of 16.4% in recidivism at these CCFs during the first marking period—nearly four times the reduction achieved by state-operated community corrections centers during the same time frame. The proposal, based on PA-DOC’s partnership with researchers at the University of Maryland, illustrates what can be accomplished when state agencies collaborate with third-party researchers.

During his remarks at Pioneer Institute’s recent 2015 Better Government Competition awards gala, Governor Baker made a commitment to “take the ball and run with the implementable ideas” that were recognized at the dinner. In fact, one of these ideas comes from his Secretary of Public Safety and Security, Daniel Bennett, who was awarded for his proposal to resolve the problem of parole-eligible inmates serving in correctional institutions instead of more appropriate long-term residential programming facilities.  The initiative has already been piloted with 50 parole-eligible inmates moved to repurposed correctional units that are now dedicated to re-entry programming. Once fully-implemented, this initiative will save the Commonwealth close to one million dollars.

Yesterday, Governor Baker echoed this sentiment in his public statement, expressing that he wants Massachusetts to “figure out which programs and which approaches seem to work best to reduce recidivism”, noting the importance of looking to leading examples across the nation as a guide. JRI’s comprehensive review will be invaluable in helping us identify the areas in need of reform. As we gain a clearer picture of what needs to be fixed, it is imperative that all branches of government in MA stay open and receptive to innovations in other states and programs that have had a significant impact on corrections systems elsewhere.

For more information on the results of our 2015 Better Government Competition, see our compendium of winning ideas