Pubdate: Wed, 14 Oct 2015
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2015 Globe Newspaper Company


State governments across the country are finally waking up to the 
enormous financial and human cost of mass incarceration. In recent 
years, at least 27 states have rolled back mandatory-minimum laws and 
other "tough-on-crime" legislation that has turned the United States 
into the world's biggest jailer. The reason? At a cost that typically 
runs more than $55,000 a year per inmate, even conservative states 
are balking at the expense of swollen prison populations.

That's one reason the "justice reinvestment" movement is gaining 
steam. Across the country, activists and lawmakers are pushing for 
reforms aimed at sending fewer people to prison, redirecting money to 
address social problems at their source.

State lawmakers in Texas redirected money earmarked for new prisons 
toward drug and alcohol treatment programs. In Pennsylvania, they 
tweaked mandatory minimums so that inmates could be sent to boot camp 
or recidivism-reduction training instead of prison.

Here in Massachusetts, the Justice Reinvestment Act, sponsored by 
state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Democrat from the Second Suffolk 
District, and state Representative Mary Keefe, a Democrat from 
Worcester, takes a similar smart approach. The act, which will be 
publicly heard on Wednesday by the judiciary committee, would repeal 
mandatory minimums for some drug offenses and reduce some nonviolent 
felonies - such as shoplifting something worth more than $250 - to 
misdemeanors. But the most innovative thing about the bill is that it 
would reinvest the money saved into a trust fund to bolster job 
training, education, and drug treatment programs in the communities 
that need it most.

Although questions remain about exactly how those savings would be 
calculated and spent, the concept is attractive. Of the 9,156 inmates 
who were serving time in Massachusetts state prisons in January, 
2,083 were convicted of nonviolent property or drug offenses. If even 
a fraction of them could be transferred to a less restrictive 
setting, taxpayers could save money, and prison inmates could get a 
headstart on rebuilding their lives. If we made bigger investments in 
drug treatment and law-abiding livelihoods, fewer people would be on 
a path to prison.

Advocates of justice reinvestment in Massachusetts should study what 
has worked - and not worked - in other states. The Justice 
Reinvestment Act is modeled after Proposition 47 in California, where 
more than 4,300 state prisoners have been resentenced and released 
since the ballot measure passed last November. Hundreds of thousands 
of former felons have applied to get drug convictions revised or 
erased, a step that could help them rebuild their lives.

But Proposition 47 has also come under fire from law enforcement 
officials who say drug addicts now have little incentive to seek 
help, since they no longer have felonies or jail terms hanging over 
their heads in court. The number of addicts who agree to participate 
in drug court has reportedly plummeted in California, while the 
homeless population has risen. Massachusetts lawmakers should examine 
California's experience and find ways to avoid such unintended consequences.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom