There are well over 2,000 men and women serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in Massachusetts. Certainly some of them deserve to be in prison, and for lengthy sentences. But many others received disproportionately harsh sentences, given that the sentencing judge was unable to take into consideration the offender’s role in the crime, prior record (if any) or need for drug treatment. See my March 12 post, Hooked on prison: the case for drug sentencing reform for a brief intro to the subject.
None of these drug offenders are eligible for parole or work release during the mandatory part of their sentence. Yet all of them will be returning to their communities. The question is how.
Without getting into the intricacies of sentencing law, basically an inmate is released in one of two ways. He can serve his full sentence and simply walk out the door, blinking in the sunlight, with no preparation or supervision. Or he can leave prison under the watchful eyes of the Parole Board or, if ordered by the sentencing judge, the Probation Department, with a re-entry plan and the threat of re-incarceration to help keep him on track. Most prisoners are eligible for parole because the Legislature has long recognized that a supervised transition is more likely to be a successful one. It also gives prisoners an incentive to put their time behind bars to good use.
The Senate bill would make drug offenders eligible for parole at an earlier date than is currently allowed. It applies only to specific drug offenses; it doesn’t include any other crimes. The Parole Board would decide who actually gets paroled, on a case-by-case basis. After reviewing the factors that the courts were unable to consider, it would decide if a drug offender is ready for a supervised return to the community. If so, the Board would develop a parole plan tailored to the needs of both the parolee and community safety. The Senate bill would also allow more drug offenders to take part in work release programs. There is simply no rational reason for barring drug offenders from gaining the vocational skills and on-the-job training that will help them earn an honest living after prison.
We already have important information about who these drug offenders are – and aren’t. According to the state Sentencing Commission, nearly 60% of those given mandatory sentences fall in the two lowest level criminal history groups, i.e., those with the least serious histories of criminal behavior. And over half of that group had either no prior criminal record or only a few convictions for minor offenses. On the other hand, a mere 0.3% had a prior record of serious violent offenses. Thus, most drug offenders are not the dangerous criminals or “gang bangers” that too often drive our criminal justice policies.
The price is right.
Massachusetts simply cannot sustain the cost of its current sentencing practices. If we continue to lock up more people for longer periods of time, we won’t be able to avoid either massive expenditures of public money or drastic cuts in public services, or both. The Crime and Justice Institute issued a 2009 report describing how the budgets for corrections agencies already have grown at a faster rate than the budgets for most any other state service. In contrast, the budgets for higher education, public education and local aid have all decreased.
In its 10-year plan assessing corrections needs by 2020, the state identified the potential need for up to $1.7 billion to upgrade existing facilities and create new bed space – unless changes are made. The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security tells us that earlier parole eligibility would lead to immediate savings of $5 to $7 million, while the most significant savings would be in the nature of cost avoidance. Department of Correction expenditures have increased by 52% in just eight years, up from $343 million in FY 2002 to $521 million for FY 2010.
Massachusetts is not alone as it struggles with this issue. But it is lagging behind. More and more states are realizing that by revisiting their sentencing policies, they can reduce the number of low level or non-violent offenders in prison, enhance public safety and save millions. The House leadership and the conference committee working on the crime bill should help usher Massachusetts into a new era, one that is more effective for public safety and less wasteful of taxpayer money. The time is right.