Commentary on Criminal Justice Reform in Massachusetts

First and foremost, a “Well Done” to the Massachusetts Legislature and Governor Baker for their efforts to reform the Massachusetts Criminal Justice System! As a person who has spent most of his adult life working at various levels and positions in the criminal justice system, serious reform has been needed for years.

Again, “Well Done” Massachusetts!

The current reform of the Massachusetts criminal justice system is the beginning of a much longer and complicated process, in my opinion. The American criminal justice system is a patchwork of kneejerk fixes to immediate situations, most of the time without any current and relevant research to validate the fix.

As I read the WBUR News article (April 6, 2018) written by Steve Brown, I was pleased to read that the Legislature addressed some of the serious issues affecting the Juvenile Justice System. Yet there are so many more issues associated with juvenile justice, and most of the issues are complicated and challenging.

I would, however, criticize some of the “fixes” (to the juvenile justice system) that the Legislature passed. Specifically, what bothers me most is the continuing use of chronological age as a determining justice factor for juvenile justice. With all of the modern scientific testing and evaluation methods, one would think that these twenty-first century tools would be employed during the juvenile adjudication process. Some of the twenty-first century tools are: I.Q. testing, psychosocial testing, psychological testing, complete physical examination, and, if determined necessary, an MRI or Cat Scan. Also, testing for traumatic brain injury. Looking back on my work with adjudicated juveniles / youthful offenders and knowing what I know now about traumatic brain injury, I am convinced that some of the youthful offenders that I came into contact with were suffering from traumatic brain injury.

If the Commonwealth really wants to have a juvenile justice system that will really help kids, then it should use every tool available to it to have the best juvenile justice system in the United States.

These current changes to the Massachusetts Criminal Justice System, in my opinion, mainly addressed the “end users” of the criminal justice system:

  • Juvenile Justice
  • Bail Reform
  • More Use of Diversion Programs
  • Expungement
  • Solitary Confinement and Compassionate Release
  • Elimination of Mandatory Minimums for Certain Low-Level Drug Offenses
  • Fentanyl and Carfentanil Trafficking

The most urgent and demanding need, I believe, is preventing children from becoming involved with the criminal justice system initially! A great deal has been written and discussed about the “Pipeline from high school to jail”. In reality, the “pipeline” starts well before high school.

My experience has shown me that society and the juvenile justice system lack the will to incorporate 21st century methods for dealing with children living in borderline, even dangerous environments where violence and disrespect is a way of life. The foster system is overburdened and, in some cases, misused. Many children should be removed from their living environments because of lack of parenting skills/involvement/care/abuse/neglect, or because there are family member(s) who already are involved with the criminal justice system, problems in school, and familial addiction issues.

My involvement with “Youthful Offenders” has helped me to define the above areas. These are the environments that they came from. The youths, mostly in their teens, had been “adjudicated adults” and sentenced to an adult penitentiary because of the serious nature of their crimes. Many of them had served time in juvenile detention. After spending numerous hours talking with them while they were incarcerated, it clearly demonstrated to me that the crime that landed them in the penitentiary was the result of many missed opportunities to correct their behavior and to prevent their incarceration. While they committed very serious and violent crimes, most of them they were just teenage boys with all the physical, psychological and emotional challenges that go along with being a teenager. It is my assertion that in many of the cases that I am familiar with, the “system” let them down. If there had been some effective intervention early on, perhaps some ofthese youthful offenders might not have been in prison. However, I am not excusing they crimes that committed that resulted in their being incarcerated.

There have been so many medical, psychological and studies of the developing brain that should be used when dealing with children who show a propensity to criminal acts or who have become involved with the criminal justice system.

There are those who believe that the obstacles to real criminal justice reform are the following:

  • Worrying about political correctness throughout the process.
  • Making the assumption that involvement with the criminal justice system only involves minorities and the poor. The infusion of opiates and other drugs on society puts everyone at risk.
  • Addressing only the symptoms that define the real problems. Addressing the real problems takes courage and knowledge more than a campaign slogan or newspaper headline might suggest.
  • Not realizing that solving the problems, once defined, will be lengthy and costly.
  • Making excuses for the human behavior instead of helping those individuals to correct it.
  • Using the victim’s rationale for criminal activity.

My retorts to the above obstacles are:

  • Too many people are afraid to “drill down” to identify the problem and to recommend solutions because they will be accused of some political prejudice. So, our children continue to join gangs, live in abusive homes, live on the streets, do drugs, buy guns, commit suicide, and kill each other! There is ample ‘real world” and statistical evidence that can be used to identify the causes.
  • Assuming that only minority and poor children get involved with the criminal justice system is just wrong. The real difference is people, regardless of race, with the financial ability to hire top class lawyers to have an advantage in today’s criminal justice system. Yes, there are issues in minority communities and there are also issues in well to do communities; they are just disguised better.
  • Yes, it is easier to address symptoms of problems than to find the cause. I believe that we know many of the causes, but are afraid to address them for fear of what the public’s reaction will be. I am in my seventies and really don’t care what others think. I have seen one too many kids land in prison, ruin their lives and the lives of others to stop crusading for the systems to change and give these kids the help and guidance they need to live productive “happy” lives!
  • Politicians understand right up front that many of these interventions will be costly. For too long, the “system” has tried to, “squeeze the buffalo off nickel”. It is time to fund programs that work and defund programs that have proven not to work.
    (I have seen numerous programs that did not work get funded over and over.)
  • By eliminating excuses, the process of building a new life begins. “We acknowledge that you have had tough breaks in your life. Some of these tough breaks were beyond your control and others you brought on yourself.” While working with youthful offenders we found that once the excuses were taken away, the youth began to grow. Others instilled many of the excuses used by the youthful offenders.

Congratulations, Massachusetts, for a magnificent start in reforming the criminal justice system within the Commonwealth! Please continue your efforts with criminal justice reform.