Massachusetts Looks At Ways to Improve Its Prison System

MASSACHUSETTS criminal justice experts are studying ways to improve the state's troubled prison system, one of the most overcrowded in the nation. The Bay State's prisons and jails are currently operating at 159 percent of capacity, according to Michael Keating, chairman of the 11-member Task Force on Justice that issued a report early this month on the state's corrections system. The task force group was formed as a joint initiative by the Boston Bar Association and the Boston-based Crime and Justice Foundation.

The state's badly managed corrections system is not only too costly but fails to ensure public safety, Mr. Keating says. He points to some key problems such as an understaffed probation system, the premature release of offenders, and inadequate substance-abuse and literacy programs.

``Every element of our criminal justice system from the courts, to probation, to the corrections system, to parole is overwhelmed and imbalanced,'' Keating says. ``What is out of balance today, we believe, will be out of control tomorrow unless systematic and comprehensive changes are made.'' The task-force report, which was completed after a six-month investigation of the state's corrections system, came up with three recommendations for improvements:

Centralization. According to the report, the state's criminal justice system needs a single executive organ to formulate policy, coordinate information, and manage resources. The current system, says Keating, works as a series of ``uncoordinated bureaucracies.''

State sentencing commission. The task-force report also recommends that the legislature form a state sentencing commission that would ensure a consistent, fair set of guidelines for judges to follow. The current system works as a haphazard combination - with judges using mandatory-sentencing guidelines for some offenses while using their own discretion for others. For this reason, the system is both too harsh and too lenient, say criminal justice experts. ``The sentencing system in this stat e lacks uniformity, consistency, truthfulness, and purpose,'' says state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger.

Fourteen states - including Minnesota, Delaware, Washington, and Oregon - have their own sentencing commissions as does the federal government. The Minnesota system is designed not only to make sentences more uniform, but to ease overcrowding. It bases sentencing on the criminal's prior record and the nature of the offense.

Intermediate sanctions. To avoid the escalating costs of incarceration, the state needs to find alternatives for nonviolent offenders, says the report. Such intermediate sanctions include fines, community service, home confinement, or halfway houses. In many cases, particularly for juvenile offenders, incarceration is too strong a punishment and probation is not strong enough, says Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Paul Chernoff.

``The public perception is that if you get probation, you get away with it and we'll get you next time,'' Judge Chernoff says.

Many states have made progress with intermediate sanctions. Fourteen states are now operating prison ``boot camps'' for example. Nonviolent offenders can choose such camps that provide up to six months of rigorous, military-style training in exchange for reduced sentences.

``The cost of incarceration in the country is draining our local, state, and federal budgets,'' says Norman Carlson, former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. ``These [intermediate sanctions] programs are not inexpensive, but imprisonment costs more.''

Newly elected Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R) is already working on centralizing the state's corrections system as part of his efforts to downsize government, says Charles McDonald, press secretary for the state Secretary of Public Safety. Governor Weld will also file his own legislation soon to restructure the state's sentencing system, Mr. McDonald says.

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