The Massachusetts House is considering proposed legislation — S. 2054 — that will have a disastrous impact on prison reform within the Commonwealth. If S.2054 passes, the following would happen:
• Parole eligibility for lifers would increase from 15 to 25 years and further crowd our prisons. Increasing parole eligibility from 15 to 25 years will cost nearly a half million dollars per prisoner ($46,000 per prisoner per year + increasing annual costs x 10 years). There is no evidence-based research that has demonstrated that such long sentences prevent crime.
• Mandatory post release supervision would be forced upon all people incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons, thus increasing the revolving door of recidivism. The proposed mandatory post-release supervision could cost approximately $11.6 million per year just for new parole officers. Even greater and uncalculated costs would be incurred through speeding up a former prisoner’s return to prison due to the increased number and kinds of infractions for parole violations under the bill.
• Massachusetts would institute one of the harshest three strikes laws in the country. The bill as now proposed would create even more punitive sentencing than California’s, where 25 percent of prisoners are now incarcerated for 25 years to life.
• Mandatory Minimum Sentences would hardly experience any reforms. The bill relies on a system of harsh and rigid sentences for people convicted of drug offenses. Among other negative consequences, it will mean that prisons will remain packed with prisoners who could be paroled.
• The bill would not allow anyone convicted of a drug offense who is sentenced to mandatory-minimum sentence after the law takes effect to be eligible for parole, work release or earned good conduct credits. This means no progress to the current overly harsh “one size fits all” sentences. As with people convicted of other crimes, those who are convicted of drug offences should have access to work release and earned good conduct credits throughout their sentences.
• The bill does not reduce the school zone from 1,000 feet to 100 feet. Instead it proposes reducing zones just to 500 feet, which will not do enough to offset the “urban penalty” paid by city residents, and will mainly help only those who live in suburban or rural areas. In order to effectively work to shift drug offenses away from protected places such as schools, the zones need to be relatively small in order to effectively move offenses away from protected areas.
The authors of S. 2054 have not adequately taken into account the following:
• Similar failed policies of other states, such as California, which passed mandatory post-release supervision, while not reforming mandatory minimum drug sentences.
• The combination of these actions, similar to S.2054, caused a prison building boom of 24 new prisons in 25 years.
• The bankrupting of California’s schools, infrastructure and health care as a result of these misguided policies and sentencing practices.
• California is now under a Federal Court order to “realign” their prison population by 30,000 prisoners this year. Is this what we want for the future of Massachusetts?
While other states including New Jersey, New York, Michigan, South Carolina, Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi (and others) have cut prison costs through evidence-based practices, saving hundreds of millions of dollars and reducing crime, Massachusetts is moving backward. Massachusetts taxpayers will foot the bill for decisions made without planning and thorough consideration for the next 20 or 30 years.
The emphasis should be on strategic intervention leading to prevention and rehabilitation. It should include an emphasis on education and job readiness programs. We believe emphasis on education and employment opportunities for former prisoners would enable them to earn some form of income and thus reduce the chances for them to engage in illegal conduct.
As several analysts have concluded, higher education and economic mobility have higher potential to reduce recidivism.
The implications are grave especially for minority communities who comprise the highest amount of those incarcerated in the Massachusetts prison system. Longer sentencing implies more tax payers’ money to feed incarceration, while schools in minority communities are closing. It will lead to more overcrowding in Massachusetts prisons. We categorically reject S. 2054.
Rev. Dr. George Walters-Sleyon is the executive director of The Center for Church and Prison.