Letter From The President Of The Boston Bar Association

2006-01-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

"Joe" is one of the 97 percent of prisoners incarcerated in a Massachusetts correctional facility who is eventually released.Wrapping up his entire sentence without parole, he is released from Massachusetts state prison with no post-release supervision.In all likelihood, he has no housing, no job, and may need help with a mental health or substance abuse problem. What are his chances of becoming one of the 44 percent of Massachusetts prisoners who will be re-incarcerated within three years?

In recent months, the Boston Bar Association has been meeting with members of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, the staffs of Senate President Travaglini and Speaker DiMasi, District Attorneys, and a Coalition for Corrections Reform to develop a comprehensive corrections reform package that honors two principles: public safety and fiscal responsibility. The coalition, led by Community Resources for Justice, a group with whom we have partnered successfully in the past, invited us to work with them in addressing a host of issues, including the constructive return of prisoners to the community.

Here is why community reintegration of former inmates is an issue worthy of your concern too. According to a 2004 white paper prepared by the Crime and Justice Institute, "nearly everyone who goes to prison returns to community living at some point." The same document goes on to say that more than 20,000 prison and jail inmates are released to Massachusetts' cities and towns each year. (Just to put that number in context, 20,000 is the approximate population of Marblehead.)

Having had the privilege of co-chairing with Ann Lambert a Boston Bar Association Task Force on Parole and Community Reintegration, I spent nearly two years learning about parole practices in Massachusetts. Although parole can be a valuable tool for making our communities safer and reducing recidivism, our study found that parole rates dropped significantly from 1990 to 2000. Clearly, this situation presents a serious public safety challenge to Massachusetts criminal justice agencies and to our communities.

Since the report of our Task Force was published in 2002, we have continued to try to change the public perception that parole, and other phased release programs, benefit the offender, only, or that when a prisoner is permitted to avail himself of a re-entry program, society is being soft on crime.

The statistics suggest that from the standpoint of using taxpayer dollars wisely, prisoner re-entry programs are a no-brainer. According to the Commonwealth's Department of Corrections, the average cost of incarcerating offenders in Massachusetts is $43,000 per year. The cost of housing an inmate in a maximum security facility is even higher, $48,000 per year.By contrast, the cost of supervising one person on parole for a year is $4,000.

It is even more troubling that 84 per cent of Massachusetts inmates are restricted by statute from participating in pre-release programs. Logically, when prisoners are released to the streets with no preparation or supervision, the chances of re-offending are much greater. Overall, therefore, parole and other programs such as education release, pre-release centers, furloughs and day reporting centers enhance public safety.

Over the course of our meetings, we found common ground in at least two areas. An inmate's reentry plan needs to begin on the day he enters prison, not five years later, which is the average time served in a Massachusetts state prison. The plan should be based on an assessment of each inmate's risk to re-offend using a validated objective risk and needs assessment instrument. It should provide for monitoring as well as assistance in obtaining employment, housing, substance abuse treatment (where appropriate), psychological services (where appropriate), and other services designed to facilitate the inmate's successful reintegration into the community and reduce recidivism.

The common ground also covers another area in which the Boston Bar Association has been working for more than a decade, sentencing reform. Massachusetts needs to adopt sentencing guideline legislation that will facilitate the use of intermediate sanctions, "step-down" programs in which prisoners are gradually moved from more restrictive to less restrictive settings, pre-release programs, and parole eligibility for all inmates except those serving life in the first degree. The system should ensure that no inmate, upon release from prison, is left with no post-release supervision and services.

I have heard it said that parole and pre-release programs have "public relations problems." All the more reason, then, for the Boston Bar Association to stay the course and provide legislators with a defensible position based on the principles of public safety and fiscal responsibility.

Sincerely,

Edward P. (Ned) Leibensperger