Criminal Justice Reform in the National Spotlight

Criminal justice reform seems to be gaining some traction nationally. A little more than a week ago, the U.S. Attorney General announced new guidelines for clemency for non-violent drug offenders.  The PBS documentary series FRONTLINE just finished airing a two-part documentary series on solitary confinement and mass incarcertation. And yesterday, the National Research Council just released a massive report summarizing 40 years of criminal justice data. (Washington Post's Wonk Blog has a very good summary.)

The NRC report tells a similar story to that which was laid out on the state level in a MassINC report last year.  We are putting the finishing touches on our own companion piece to that report, which looks at pubic opinion on criminal justice reform. (The report expands upon the findings we released at an event with Gov. Patrick back in February. We've also compared how our findings on drug sentencing track very closely with recent national surveys on the topic.)

Our full report will be release next week. But given that our research covered many of the topics addressed in the new national report, here's a quick rundown of what Massachusetts voters think about some of the key issues.

  • prisonsPrison population. The NRC report found that the national incarceration rate (that is, the percentage of the total population behind bars) has quadrupled since the 1970s. The MassINC report found a similar trend in Massachusetts; since the 1980s, the percentage of our state's population in prison has tripled. Our research has found that the public perceives this to be a problem, with a plurality (40 percent) thinking there are too many people in prison in the Commonwealth. And two-thirds (67 percent) would rather reform the system to send fewer people to prison rather than building more prisons.
  • Mandatory minimums and drug crimes. Both the NRC report and the MassINC report link the rise in the prison population not to a spike in crime but to laws and policies that have resulted in longer sentences for lesser offenses and which have limited the opportunity for probation and parole. Chief among these are mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes, including drug crimes. Our research found scant public support for these policies. Overwhelmingly, Massachusetts residents would rather see some form of judicial discretion in sentencing; only 11 percent favored mandatory minimums when presented with three sentencing options. And Massachusetts voters want to change course on punishing drug crimes. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) think drug use should be treated more as a health problem than a crime (24 percent), and 83 percent think sending drug users to treatment instead of prison would be effective at reducing crime.hardened
  • Harsh punishments not seen as effective. The NRC report found little evidence linking tough-on-crime policies with a reduction in crime; studies suggest other factors play a larger role in reducing crime than tough sentences. The public also perceives that the current approach is ineffective and often counterproductive. Voters rated tough-on-crime measures like requiring prisoners to serve out their entire sentences less effective at reducing crime than more reform-minded proposals. And a majority of voters (59 percent) thought that time in prison actually made inmates more likely to reoffend.
  • Minorities and minority neighborhoods bear the brunt of the system: The NRC report found that blacks and Latinos are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system, with devastating impacts on their families and communities. In Massachusetts, MassINC found that crime, convictions and prison releases are highly concentrated in Boston and nine Gateway Cities. Our research paid particular attention to opinion from these communities, and found that residents from these highly impacted areas have less confidence in the criminal justice system and supported various reforms as strongly or more so than the general population. Focus groups from these communities rated improving the fairness of the system as a top reason for pursuing reform.

More to come when we release the full report next week.