Athol Daily News – Mass. has the lowest incarceration rate in 35 years; experts say there is room for improvement


The prison population in the state of Massachusetts has fallen by more than 40% over the past decade, but experts say the state should continue to explore ways to continue decarceration, including using the justice system to minors as guides and releasing those convicted of violent crimes.

The number of inmates in the Department’s correctional facilities has increased from 11,723 in 2012 to 6,848 in 2021, according to the department. annual report 2020. With the lowest incarceration rate in 35 years, the state announcement last month that it would phase out its housing operations at the maximum-security MCI-Cedar Junction in Walpole.

One expert, however, said the state will need to adopt a new approach if it hopes to further reduce its prison population.

Kevin Wozniak, director of the criminal justice and criminology major at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said only releasing those convicted of nonviolent offenses could be a mistake because violent offenders have one lowest recidivism rates, meaning they are less likely to commit crimes after release.

“The majority of the prison population overall is convicted of a violent offense,” Wozniak said. “If we take them completely off the table, we will very quickly reach the ceiling of what we can achieve.”

Studies have shown that probation is just as effective a method as jail to prevent a person from committing a crime, Wozniak said. Probation is less expensive and has a less negative impact on those convicted of crimes and their families.

Prisons traditionally hold people awaiting trial or detained for minor crimes, whereas prisons hold criminals convicted of serious crimes. In Massachusetts, jails are overseen by county sheriffs while the DOC oversees jails.

Jails have seen fewer decarcerations than jails nationwide because over the past decade courts have increasingly sent those awaiting trial to jail instead of letting them wait at home, Wozniak said. The government should consider changing its bail practices, as the current system incarcerates people for being poor instead of being a danger to others.

Massachusetts spends an average of $61,241 per inmate at its largest prison, MCI Norfolk, and $111,674 per inmate at its only exclusively maximum-security prison, Souza Baranowski Correctional Center, according to the DOC’s 2020 annual report.

The state can use the money it saves with fewer people in prison in halfway houses, drug treatment programs and reintegration programs to help those released from prison reintegrate into their communities, said Wozniak.

Even better, he said, the state can prevent crime in the first place by using that money to invest in communities with high rates of poverty and unemployment, which tend to increase crime.

“Why don’t we invest in these communities to create jobs and improve schools and after-school programs so that young people are involved in activities and have something to do,” Wozniak said.

However, Natasha Frost, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University, warned that the Department of Corrections is understaffed and should not be laying off staff in response to the declining prison population.

The pandemic effect

COVID-19 has forced the department to organize smaller correctional officer academies, which has exacerbated a staffing shortage due to retirements, Frost said. Having a well-staffed facility benefits both staff and inmates, as officers tend to have more positive interactions with inmates when they work less overtime.

Correctional officers sometimes arrive for a shift and are told they have to work multiple overtime hours because their co-workers are sick, Frost said.

“That officer then has to let his family know that he won’t be home picking up the kids and so on,” Frost said. “This can lead to a drop in staff morale.”

Youth successes

Leon Smith, Managing Director of Citizens for Juvenile Justicewho advocates for improvements to the juvenile justice system, said the adult justice system could learn from successful reforms in juvenile facilities.

Smith said it’s “astonishing” how many decarcerations have taken place at the juvenile level over the past 15 years. The Department of Youth Services had 89 first hires in 2021, up from 366 in 2015, according to status data.

The adult system, using solitary confinement, is more punishment-oriented than the youth system, which prioritizes rehabilitation, said Joshua Dankoff, director of strategic initiatives at Citizens for Juvenile Justice.

“The average time a youth in DYS confined to their room for an incident is 45 minutes,” Dankoff said. “They give the youngster a time to calm down, and then they continually interact with that person.”

Young people between the ages of 18 and 20 who are incarcerated in DYS instead of adult prisons have lower recidivism rates, Smith said. Youth facilities have better family engagement and better access to mental health care, he added.

“The difference between a mother sitting next to her child and having a conversation and offering encouragement versus holding a phone and looking through a window is significant,” Smith said.

Communities with less recidivism are safer because there is less crime and fewer repeat offenders, he said.

Diversion programs, where a young person undergoes mental health counseling, education programs, community service or another alternative to prosecution, have reduced youth incarceration in the state, Smith said. However, some areas of Massachusetts have better diversion programs than others, so Smith said the state needs to make sure the programs are used fairly.

“That it’s not just white kids or kids from a higher socioeconomic background who get these breaks,” Smith said. “But children of color, children with disabilities, children from poor backgrounds.”

The more opportunities young people have to pursue educational or vocational programs, the less likely they are to be arrested, Smith said. Social programs that help meet people’s basic needs, like the latest temporary increase in the child tax credit, reduce crime rates and therefore incarceration, Dankoff said.

Especially coming out of the pandemic, many faced deteriorating mental health, Smith said. Massachusetts must address this issue at the community level before entering the court system, he added.

“People who have been traumatized and are struggling with mental health issues are channeled through the system, which will not make it better, it will make it worse,” Smith said.

Allison Pirog writes for the Boston University Statehouse Program Recorder.

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