Mass. has lowest incarceration rate in 35 years; experts say there is room to improve

  • The Massachusetts state flag AP FILE PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE

For the Recorder
Published: 5/25/2022 5:10:01 PM

The Massachusetts state prison population has decreased more than 40% during the last decade, but experts say the state should continue exploring ways to further decarceration, including using the juvenile justice system as a guide and releasing those convicted of violent crimes.

The number of prisoners in Department of Correction facilities decreased from 11,723 in 2012 to 6,848 as of Jan. 1, 2021, according to the department’s 2020 annual report. With the lowest incarceration rate in 35 years, the state announced last month that it will phase out its housing operations at the maximum-security Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Cedar Junction in Walpole.

One expert, however, said the state will need to take a new approach if it hopes to reduce its prison population further.

Kevin Wozniak, director of the criminal justice and criminology major at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said releasing only those convicted of non-violent offenses may be a mistake because violent offenders have some of the lowest recidivism rates, meaning they are less likely to commit crimes after release.

“The majority of the overall incarcerated population is convicted of a violent offense,” Wozniak said. “If we kind of put them completely off the table, we’re very quickly going to hit the ceiling of what we can achieve.”

Studies have shown probation is an equally effective method as prison for preventing a person from committing a crime, Wozniak said. Probation is cheaper and has a less negative impact on people convicted of crimes and their families.

Jails traditionally hold people awaiting trial or being held for minor crimes, where prisons hold criminals convicted of serious crimes. In Massachusetts, jails are overseen by county sheriffs while the Department of Correction oversees prisons.

Jails have seen less decarceration than prisons nationwide because in the last decade, courts have increasingly sent those awaiting trial to jail instead of letting them wait at home, Wozniak said. The government should consider changing its practices on setting bail because the current system incarcerates people for being poor instead of being a danger to others.

Massachusetts spends an average of $61,241 per prisoner at its largest prison, Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Norfolk, and $111,674 per prisoner at its only exclusively maximum-security prison, Souza Baranowski Correctional Center, according to the Department of Correction’s 2020 annual report.

The state can use the money it saves with fewer people in prison on halfway houses, drug treatment programs and re-entry programs to help those leaving prison transition back into their communities, Wozniak said.

Better yet, he said, the state can prevent crime in the first place by using this money to invest in communities with high rates of poverty and unemployment, which tend to increase crime.

“Why don’t we invest in those communities to create jobs and to improve schools and after-school programs so that youth are involved in activities and have something to do?” Wozniak said.

However, Natasha Frost, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University, cautioned the Department of Correction is understaffed and should not lay off personnel in response to lower prison populations.

COVID-19 forced the department to hold smaller correctional officer academies, which exacerbated a staffing shortage due to retirements, Frost said. Having a well-staffed facility benefits staff and prisoners because officers tend to have more positive interactions with prisoners when they work less overtime.

Correctional officers sometimes arrive for a shift and are told they need to work several extra hours of overtime because their co-workers are out sick, Frost said.

“That officer then has to let his or her family know that they’re not going to be home to pick up the kids and whatnot,” Frost said. “It can cause decreases in morale of staff.”

Juvenile successes

Leon Smith, executive director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, which advocates for improvements in the juvenile justice system, said the adult justice system could learn from successful reforms in juvenile facilities.

Smith said it is “astounding” how much decarceration has occurred on the juvenile level in the last 15 years. The Department of Youth Services had 89 first-time commitments in 2021, down from 366 in 2015, according to state data.

The adult system, using solitary confinement, is more oriented toward punishment than the youth system, which prioritizes rehabilitation, said Joshua Dankoff, director of strategic initiatives at Citizens for Juvenile Justice.

“The average time of a young person in DYS being confined to their rooms for an incident is 45 minutes,” Dankoff said. “They give the young person a time to calm down and then they continually interact with that person.”

Young people ages 18 to 20 who are committed to the Department of Youth Services instead of adult prisons have lower rates of recidivism, Smith said. Youth facilities have better family engagement and access to mental health care, he added.

“The difference between a mom sitting next to their child and having a conversation and offering encouragement instead of holding a phone and looking through glass, that stuff matters,” Smith said.

Communities with less recidivism are safer because there is less crime and fewer repeat offenders, he said.

Diversion programs, where a youth completes mental health counseling, education programs, community service or another alternative to prosecution, have reduced youth incarceration in the state, Smith said. Some areas of Massachusetts have better diversion programs than others, however, so Smith said the state needs to make sure the programs are used equitably.

“That it’s not just white kids or kids from a higher socio-economic background that are getting those breaks,” Smith continued, “but the kids of color, kids with disabilities, kids from impoverished backgrounds.”

The more opportunities young people have to attend educational or vocational programs, the less likely they are to be arrested, Smith said. Social programs that help meet people’s basic needs, such as the last temporary child tax credit increase, reduce crime rates and therefore incarceration, Dankoff said.

Especially coming out of the pandemic, many have faced worsening mental health, Smith said. Massachusetts must address this on a community level before these people enter the justice system, he added.

“Individuals who’ve suffered trauma and who are grappling with mental health issues are funneled across the whole system,” Smith explained, “which will not make that better, but in turn make that worse.”

Allison Pirog writes from the Boston University Statehouse Program.


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