Massachusetts Pushes Justice Reforms


Massachusetts is pushing new justice reforms with the goal of decreasing recidivism 50% over the next five years. CivSource recently reported on programs in 17 states designed to cut prison populations and save money, the Massachusetts program is a separate and additional entry in a growing effort by state governments to rein in a sprawling national justice system.

Governor Deval Patrick is proposing a program that recognizes that preparation for re-entry to society must be intentional and includes improvements to the Department of Correction’s (DOC) classification system. The proposal also calls for the launch of a step-down program that provides more opportunity for inmates to access educational and training programs.

Governor Patrick strongly believes that substance abuse must be treated as a health problem and not a criminal issue, and has proposed steps to increase the availability of substance abuse treatment programs in community settings. Additionally, to better care for those suffering from mental illness in custody, the governor has proposed funding to train law enforcement to learn how to de-escalate and properly handle people with mental health issues. He aims to refocus the Department of Corrections on ensuring that the use of restraints is a last resort.

In addition to discipline changes, the governor also called for an end to the use of restraints on pregnant inmates during labor. While current regulations already prohibit this practice in state prisons, the Department of Corrections will issue emergency regulations extending that prohibition to all facilities, including Houses of Correction. Lastly, the Governor called for a renewed focus on bringing criminal sentencing in Massachusetts up to date, proposing to reinvigorate the Sentencing Commission’s work of bringing a critical and data-based lens to the Commonwealth’s sentencing practices.

Currently, 300 eligible candidates have been identified for the step-down program. Elsewhere the statistics are more grim – since 2006, there has been a 67% increase in the number of civilly committed individuals in Massachusetts. The resulting volume means the state is just flat out of beds to give to individuals. When dedicated facilities are out of beds, those individuals are then sent to men’s or women’s prisons as dictated by state law. The state says that the majority of those referred to prison would be eligible for treatment programs in dedicated facilities if beds were available.

To deal with the overload, the state plans to allocate 64 new inpatient beds in the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services Metrowest region, which is currently is the only region without a detoxification program. A $10 million legislative expansion of civil commitment services is also underway. That work will add 80 new Transitional Support Services beds, 200 new residential beds and community-based case management services.