Mass. crime and incarceration rates reflect decade-long national decline

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STATE HOUSE — The past 10 years in Massachusetts have seen decreases in total crime, criminal case filings and convictions, researchers told a working group seeking avenues to reform the state’s criminal justice system.

The bipartisan group, comprised of members from all branches of state government, reviewed an initial analysis from the Council on State Governments Justice Center that will serve as a starting point in their efforts to cut incarceration and recidivism rates, lower criminal justice costs and reinvest the savings in programs like re-entry services.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress in Massachusetts, but I think we can probably be the model for the rest of the country after we make some changes,” said Superior Court Chief Justice Judith Fabricant, one of four judges on the panel.

The state’s total incarcerated population has dropped 12 percent from 2006 to 2015, falling to 20,325 from 23,200, according to state data presented by Justice Center staff. While the number of sentenced prisoners in state Department of Corrections custody inched up by 3 percent to 9,337, the number of sentenced prisoners in county houses of corrections fell 35 percent to 5,488 over that period.

Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants reached out to the Justice Center in August, requesting technical assistance in a data-driven effort to further reduce recidivism rates, prison population and taxpayer costs while enhancing public safety.

The 25-member working group, which also includes representatives from law enforcement and legal services, was announced in October. A steering committee, comprised of Baker, Rosenberg, DeLeo, Gants and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, is overseeing the review process and policy development.

On Tuesday, members of the group expressed optimism about the process’s potential and said they were looking forward to seeing results.

“I’m eager to see things move forward,” said Sen. William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat who co-chairs both the working group and the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “I almost would be ready to do a lot of things myself.”

With the goal of introducing a bill for the beginning of next year’s legislative session, the working group and Justice Center staff will hold a series of meetings to review data on incarceration, supervision and recidivism in Massachusetts. The analysis will involve data from the trial courts, Department of Correction, Office of the Commissioner of Probation, Parole Board, Department of Mental Health and county sheriffs.

“We’ve seen an overall downward trend in crime across the United States over the last decade, and it’s been significant,” Justice Center senior policy advisor Steve Allen told the group. “It’s not unsubstantial, and the data you’re looking at in Massachusetts reflects those downward trends.”

The question, Allen said, is what policies, strategies and other factors in a complex system are driving those trends.

Other findings from the analysis included:

* Drug convictions fell by 49 percent between 2008 and 2013, with non-drug convictions falling by 20 percent over the same period.

* The trends in jail populations varied widely across counties from 2009 to 2015, ranging from a 52 percent decrease in Berkshire County to a 35 percent increase in Middlesex County.

* The three-year recidivism rate — the number of offenders reincarcerated for a new sentence or violation within three years of being released — dropped to 35 percent in 2011 after hovering around 40 percent between 2004 and 2010.

* More than 70,000 people are on probation or parole, with 830 people released from state prison to probation in 2014 and 440 released on parole.

“We knew coming into Massachusetts that there was no house afire, there was no burning issue we needed to attend to, so the good news is, in this initial analysis we’re not finding a house afire,” Allen said. “These findings may be sort of a yawner, if you will. They’re not key, compelling issues, and that is sort of both the plus and the minus of where we are at this point.”

Without one specific problem needing to be solved, the working group members have an opportunity to “think differently” and consider more than one set of solutions, said Justice Center project manager Katie Mosehauer.

The working group and Justice Center staff next meet April 12, when they plan to focus on detailed data analysis around supervision. Additional data analysis will follow with meetings scheduled for May and July.

In the fall, the group will shift to discussion of policy options, with the intent of introducing a policy package in January 2017.

— Written by Katie Lannan

Copyright State House News Service