Fixing Our Broken Criminal Justice System

Our criminal justice system is broken. We imprison too many people for too long for doing too little. Race has too much to do with who ends up in our criminal justice system. The consequences of the unfairness of our criminal justice system are profound. Over-incarceration exacerbates cyclical poverty and inequality, and it undermines our efforts to create a more just and equal society.

The Massachusetts legislature has just passed landmark legislation that will make dramatic improvements to our criminal justice system. Among other provisions, the bill raises the felony theft threshold, adds restrictions to solitary confinement, improves pretrial services, does away with some probation and parole fees, abolishes some mandatory minimum sentences, reduces counterproductive license suspension, and rewards program participation in prison with reduced sentences.
 
This legislation represents a huge step forward. Despite the dramatic progress represented by this legislation, however, we must not hang up a Mission Accomplished banner and move on to other priorities. There is much more to do, especially in the areas of bail, addiction, and reentry, where the status quo criminalizes those in poverty and struggling with substance use disorders, and ensures that the door to prison is a revolving one for many of the 2,000+ people released from prison each year.
 
Here are three areas in particular where we must continue to work to improve the system.
 
Bail reform: When individuals cannot pay the bail set by a judge ahead of trial, they are detained. Without being convicted of a crime, they are sent to jail to await trial. Recently, the Supreme Judicial Court required that judges consider a person’s ability to pay when assigning bail. This requirement is codified in the omnibus criminal justice reform bill that just passed, but the legislation leaves open many questions about how affordability should be interpreted. We will need to watch closely to ensure that these proposals truly recalibrate a system that for too long has criminalized poverty. If not, further reforms may be needed.
 
Substance Use Disorder: Nearly two thirds of incarcerated people struggle with a substance use disorder and are at a severely elevated risk of overdose. However, a section that would have given incarcerated people access to evidence-based medication assisted treatment was removed from the final bill. I hope the legislature will act quickly to introduce a similar provision in other pending legislation. I also hope that the legislature will take further steps to repeal mandatory minimum sentences including the new minimum that the legislation imposes for fentanyl trafficking.

Reentry: Thousands of people leave prison and jail each year. When they do, they face numerous barriers to finding housing, jobs, and social services. Two-thirds of people leaving Houses of Correction (HOCs) and more than half of those leaving Department of Correction (DOC) facilities in 2011 were re-arraigned within three years of their release. We need to invest in community-based organizations with a track record of facilitating reentry. Recent losses in funding — especially at the federal level — have led to the shutdown of crucial reentry supports, including the Boston Reentry Initiative, Span, Inc., and Overcoming the Odds. If people do not have access to the services they desperately need in their communities, the system will continue to act as a revolving door.
 
This is an exciting moment in criminal justice reform and a cause for much celebration. But after the signing ceremony, we should put down our champagne glasses and get back to work to build on this important progress towards a fairer system for all.

Quentin Palfrey is a Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. He previously served as Senior Advisor for Jobs & Competitiveness in President Obama’s White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and as an Assistant Attorney General in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. More information about his campaign is available here: www.quentinpalfrey.com