I had to cover a lot of ground in my column Sunday on criminal justice reform, and realized later I may not have given enough space to explaining what’s wrong with mandatory minimum sentences in Massaschusetts.
Mandatory minimums are just what they sound like. All set a minimum sentence for a particular crime. A list of mandatory minimums (also often called minimum mandatories) is here. Notice they are almost exclusively for non-violent crimes: drugs, prostitution, gun law violations, OUI, etc. That’s why non-violent offenders often serve longer sentences than those convicted of violent crimes.
What’s wrong with these policies? Let me count the ways.
1. Those sentenced under mandatory minimums are not eligible for “good time” taken off their sentences in return for good behavior or, more typically, participation in work release, substance abuse treatment, job training and other programs. Thus there’s no “carrot” corrections officials can use to encourage participation in programs proven to reduce recidivism.
2. With mandatory minimums, there is no post-release supervision. You serve your sentence and you’re free — literally put on a bus and dropped on a street corner in your old neighborhood. No parole office to check in with regularly, no re-entry program to get the ex-con into a job, housing or treatment. Researchers say what happens in the first 72 hours after release has a huge effect on whether he starts a new life or reverts to criminal behavior with the old gang.
3. Contrary to the popular assumption that longer sentences deter crime, research has found that the longer you are incarcerated, the more likely you are to be arrested again after release.
4. Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian told me one quarter of the population at the county jail are under mandatory minimums. The unintended consequence of mandatory minimums is to deny rehabilitation programs to the prisoners who are most open to rehabilitation.
5. Mandatory minimums (and other poorly-thought-out tough-on-crime measures like school zones) take discretion away from judges and give it to prosecutors. The sentences are a tool in plea bargaining and a lever to get crooks to roll over on other crooks. If all you want to do is make arrests and lock up as many people for as long as possible, they work. If your goal is less crime and more public safety, not so much.
6. Did I mention expense? It costs taxpayers $50,000 a year to house a prisoner. More like $64,000 for female prisoners, because of higher health costs. The vast majority of women prisoners have mental health and substance abuse problems. Just 2 percent of the state’s DOC budget is spent on rehabilitation programs, according to reform advocate Edward Ryan.
The case for smart-on-crime policies is obvious, non-partisan and not a hard sell if you get people to pay attention. Over the years, I’ve gotten a slew of candidates, notably Deval Patrick and Martha Coakley, to express support for changing mandatory minimums. Coakley makes a prosecutor’s argument for returning to partially suspended sentences: You serve the first part of your sentence and are released on parole, with the rest of it suspended. Get in trouble on the outside and a judge can send you right back to prison to finish your sentence, with no trial on the new charges needed. Now that’s a deterrent. Shortly after taking office, Patrick, Coakley and Sal DiMasi (I think) held a press conference to announce their support for sentencing reform. But nothing happened.
Why the resistance to reform in liberal Massachusetts? The Corrections union likes things the way they are. Even before they were publicaly disgraced in the past year, Parole and Probation departments were so disreputable and so caught up in turf wars that nobody had confidence in their ability to pull off reforms dependent on post-release supervision. But mostly it’s the district attorneys who have been a united voice against sentencing reform. And, of course, there are the Democratic state legislators, who live in fear of a Herald headline or a Howie Carr radio rant and are convinced — despite all evidence to the contrary — that a vote for a smarter criminal justice policy would keep them from being re-elected. (And not just that, a Beacon Hill insider told me: They don’t just want to be re-elected, they don’t want to have to go to the trouble of having to roll over some longshot opposition.)
Meanwhile, it’s the conservatives running blue states like Texas and Georgia who, inspired by the need to save money, are embracing reforms. Texas has reduced its incarceration rate by 8 percent, reduced its crime rate by 6 percent and saved $2 billion by shelving a plan to build new prisons. Why can’t Massachusetts do something smart like that?