Criminal Justice Reform Tackled at BC Law

At BC Law, your education does not only consist of the material you learn in your courses. BC hosts many conferences, functions, presentations, and discussions on just about every subject you can think of, from panels put on by professors addressing recent political actions to all-day events sponsored by BC’s journals and the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy. Recently, the Rappaport Center sponsored an all-day conference on criminal justice reform in Massachusetts that was open to both students and practitioners. There were three panels as well as a keynote address by Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

I attended the second panel of the day, which focused on the topic of reducing recidivism. The four panelists work in four distinct areas that all touch the criminal justice system.

The moderator of the panel, State Senator Will Brownsberger, is on the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. He spoke about the recent Massachusetts criminal justice reform bill and a recidivism-focused Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center report. The basic theme of his discussion was the goal of giving prisoners stronger incentives to stay on track and to participate in programs as a way to reduce recidivism. One recent concept is to use completion credits. For example, if a prisoner completes a certain program, they can get up to 90 days of credit for that completion. By making the prisoners eligible for parole early, they get out earlier. This creates the incentive to complete the programs and could lead to a decrease in recidivism.

Panelist Leslie Walker is the Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services. She opined that there is not enough programming for prisoners and not enough mental health counseling. Waiting lists for programming are incredibly long and few prisoners get the services they request. This means that when prisoners are released, the rehabilitation that was supposed to occur while they served their sentence did not take place. Ms. Walker recommended that Massachusetts increase the money it spends on programs, and that it also needs to increase accessibility to programming. She added that supermax prisons have almost no meaningful programming. With respect to recidivism, Ms. Walker added that job training is important because you cannot support yourself on minimum wage.

The second panelist to speak was Jose Bou. Mr. Bou was formerly incarcerated and now teaches at Holyoke Community College. Mr. Bou began by asking everyone to think about what the phrase “slipping through the cracks” means. He continued by saying that in his experience he came up through the cracks and that he was there on the panel that day due to astronomical luck. Mr. Bou is an example of someone who utilized programming while he was incarcerated. He was a full time student and had a part time job while in prison, and was able to use this education and experience to obtain a job once he was out. He is a proponent of programming during the sentence as well as afterward. Mr. Bou summarized that the four most important things for former prisoners when they get out are: 1) education, 2) housing, 3) sustainable employment, and 4) mentorship. On the employment point he added that everyone wants to work when they get out, and that getting turned down for a job because of your criminal record is very discouraging. Mr. Bou believes focusing on making sure that former prisoners can obtain education, housing, sustainable work, and mentorship would reduce repeat offenses.

The last panelist to speak was Adam Foss, a criminal justice reform advocate. Mr. Foss is a former Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney. He said that current prosecutors need to think about criminal justice and recidivism. Mr. Foss stated that recidivating starts as soon as someone goes into the criminal justice system. He added that holding someone on bail dramatically increases the likelihood of recidivism. He thinks it is important for prosecutors to think about what it is that brought the accused individual in in the first place. Was it a lack of education or lack of employment? Mr. Foss added that he thinks that the State may be missing out on an opportunity in juvenile court. He suggested that recidivism can be reduced by addressing underlying issues from the moment someone is accused of a crime.

In Criminal Law during our 1L year, we studied the goals of criminal punishment. One goal was to punish offenders, but an even more important goal was to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce recidivism. It was eye opening to listen to a panel of individuals whose careers are so intertwined with these goals of the system and to hear how they think it can be improved. As a student, it is inspiring to hear how lawyers and others can change a system for the benefit of prisoners, former prisoners, and society at large. The changes can come from the legislature through enacting a system of completion credits, from the prison system by increasing accessibility to programs in prisons, from probation services that focus on education, housing, employment, and mentoring, or from prosecutors addressing causes of criminal behavior from the moment someone is accused. This panel taught that a lawyer or advocate who is passionate about criminal justice reform could make an impact at any stage of the process and in a variety of positions in the system. As the moderator left off, there are many actors in the system that all act in good faith. This panel taught how those good actors can reduce recidivism by honing in on some specific suggested changes to the system.

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