Justice Reinvestment Initiative Is Not Wholly Good

By Marigny Nevitt

On Monday, August 4th, Governor Charlie Baker, president of the Massachusetts State senate, Stan Rosenberg, and Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court jointly announced their request to the US Department of Justice to bring the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) to Massachusetts. This initiative would analyze our current criminal justice policies in Massachusetts and suggest reforms to save money and improve policies.

The Justice Reinvestment Initiative was launched during the 2001-2003 recession as a three-part strategy to analyze state criminal justice policies and recommend ways to reduce criminal justice spending, which could produce money to be reinvested in local high incarceration communities; utilize development experts to guide investment opportunities; and organize demand for neighborhood reinvestment by local affected populations. The US Department of Justice and the Pew Center on the States fund the assessment and recommendation process, which would be carried out by a team from the Council of State Governments.

While the JRI may sound like a great idea at first glance, we need to step back and look at the JRI’s history with a more critical eye. A recent report entitled, “Ending Mass Incarceration: Charting a New Justice Reinvestment” was compiled by a group of researchers, analysts and advocates dedicated to ending mass incarceration in the US and published in April 2013. This report highlights some of the flaws in the JRI’s current focal points and how this has led to very little convincing evidence of reduced mass incarceration in the 27 other states that had taken part prior to the study in 2013.

Although it began focused on minimization of prison populations and reinvestment of money in the disproportionately communities of color affected by mass incarceration, the JRI in practice has recently meant a focus on reducing recidivism rates, expanding parole supervision, and reinvesting money in law enforcement. The JRI emphasizes the passing of legislation, and strategies that would actually attack the front-end to reduce prison population are too frequently one of the first things to be compromised when pushing through legislation. Interestingly enough, the letter that Massachusetts leaders wrote to the Justice Department specifically requested special attention given to recidivism rates and inadequate parole supervision.

By focusing on recidivism rates, we fail to acknowledge the larger problem of checking overall corrections growth, which could be more properly addressed by investigating new commitment admissions and length of stay, which is related to mandatory minimum sentencing. Increased parole supervision to address the current “inadequate” supervision would just be an extension of the corrections system into the communities already devastated by mass incarceration. Instead, the focus needs to be redirected to actual reinvestment projects that would create more jobs within the communities affected and break the cycle of mass incarceration.

Another key aspect of the JRI that needs improvement is the inclusion of local officials from the communities affected and local advocacy/grassroots groups. In its current state, the JRI is solely accountable to the state legislators wherever it gets involved. However, there are groups, including ours, that have been working for criminal justice reform prior to the request for JRI involvement and will continue to advocate once the JRI six-month process is complete. These groups need a seat at the table to bring the perspective of those truly affected by our state’s criminal justice policies and to hold the state legislators accountable after any legislation has been passed.

If the request for the JRI to come to Massachusetts is granted, we need to be vigilant and make our voices heard to ensure that the initiative does not result in a strengthening of our current mass incarceration system. Our Executive Director, Rachel Corey, recently took part in a discussion concerning the request for the Justice Reinvestment Initiative to come to Massachusetts on Radio Boston. Listen to the discussion here, which also included Stan Rosenberg, president of the Massachusetts State Senate, and Kevin Burke, chair of the criminal justice department at Endicott College, former Massachusetts public safety secretary and former Essex County district attorney.

Consider the Dichotomy

President Obama’s visit to a Federal prison is welcome, as is all the media attention it and his commutation have generated. But reformers need to challenge the politically motivated distinction made by him (and often by us) between violent and non-violent offenders. What law defines as violent and what humans mean by violence are two quite different things. As my husband used to tell me, assault with a deadly weapon: the deadly weapon could be a shoe worn on a kicking foot.

And if we are successful in eliminating mandatory minimums or legalizing possession of some drugs, we’re not going to reduce the prison population by as much as we might think. Right now, non violent drug crimes are often the end result of a plea bargaining down from violent crimes or crimes that sound violent.

A book that has helped me understand the arcane art of charging/bargaining — the dance of ADA’s and defense attorneys — and also the pendulum swings in the history of criminal justice — is William Stuntz, The Collapse of American Justice.

I strongly highly recommend Stuntz’ book.

Roswitha M. Winsor (Ros),