For the past three years summer has meant a new season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, re-opening discussions about criminal justice reform across the country. OINTB has quickly become one of the most popular television shows among millenials, as well as being one of the first series to be completely released on an online streaming service. The show centers on a fictional women’s federal prison in upstate New York, and follows the day-to-day life of the prisoners as well as portraying their background stories. Many aspects of OINTB are revolutionary, from the nearly all female cast, to the realistic view of a not-so-glamorous part of our society, and of course, the conversations it forces us to have. Unfortunately, these discussions quickly disappear from mainstream media outlets after the appeal of the new season has died out, and those not affected by mass incarceration forget about the very real problems that thousands of convicted women and their families face every day. Problems such as mass incarceration due to mandatory minimum sentences and other outdated and unjust legislation are especially invisible in progressive states like Massachusetts. Massachusetts consistently sits near or at the top of lists ranking states by progressiveness or success of legislation — in categories such as education, medical care, and teen pregnancies – which although impressive, can actually dissuade further progress. Such success can encourage policymakers and constituents to follow the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” method of government, when in reality some Massachusetts policy is broke(n), even if it does not seem that way when compared to other states.
Across the country, movements to end mass incarceration have been picking up steam in the past decade. As a country, the United States maintains the largest incarcerated population in the world, while also incarcerating the largest percentage of its population. With nearly 2.2 million people in our prisons and jails, this number accounts for more than 1% of the American population. Of those people, 100,000 are imprisoned women, a number that has been growing at nearly double the rate for men over the past few years. Among incarcerated women, roughly 60% are in for nonviolent drug crimes. The reason that the convictions make up such a large percentage of the prison population can be traced back to the War on Drugs approach to policing and convicting conceived by policymakers in the 1980s and 90s. These policies are outdated and continuously have been proved to be ineffective, yet they remain in place. Mandatory minimum sentencing is one of the most harmful and most common practices in our criminal justice system. These laws ensure that individuals who commit low-level drug crimes – such as possession of a small amount of crack cocaine – will automatically be sentenced to a minimum number of months or years, with no consideration of the specific case. Not only do these laws undermine the jurisdiction of judges, they do not work. In the more than twenty years since these laws have been instated, drug use has increased. More recently, for a variety of reasons, heroin and opioid addiction in Massachusetts have increased drastically; therefore, jail is obviously a viable solution to drug use. The enforcement of mandatory minimums can ruin people’s lives for committing low-level drug crimes.
The Boston Globe recently ran an article highlighting new legislation brought to the Massachusetts Statehouse on criminal justice reform, an action to which Governor Charlie Baker responded, “Massachusetts should be proud of the fact that it has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the United States.” Be that as it may, Massachusetts still suffers from the countrywide epidemic of mass incarceration, and some state legislators are trying to change that. State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston) and Representative Mary Keefe (D-Worcester) are working towards support for a Justice Reinvestment Act in Massachusetts. Justice reinvestment refers to a data-driven approach to policy seeking to improve public safety that works to cut spending and reinvest savings in practices that have been proven to succeed. So far, thirty-three states have adopted justice reinvestment approaches to reform criminal justice policy including the other New England states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire. This legislation focuses on several key aspects of criminal justice reform including the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenses and a revaluation of the state’s bail and parole systems. Each year Massachusetts spends around $53,000 per prisoner, almost four times what we spend on education per child. Massachusetts also follows the countrywide trend of disproportionately imprisoning Black and Latino men and women; while people of color make up only 25% of the state’s general population they make up 66% of the prison population.
While Massachusetts has the third lowest incarceration rate in the country, after Maine and Minnesota, it spent about 47% more than other states per inmate in 2012. Similarly, Massachusetts spending is also mismanaged when dealing with drugs and addiction. A recent report published by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (Mass INC) highlighted this problem, “While the vast majority of people in prison are there because of crimes directly related to drugs and alcohol, and while Massachusetts taxpayers spend an estimated $4.5 billion (or 21.8% of the entire state budget) on the fallout from addiction, we spend very little on prevention and treatment of addiction: $66 million annually, or 0.32% of the state budget.” As a state, if we are truly looking to reduce illicit drug use, we need to look at successful preventative measures, instead of the using incarceration as our go-to method for treating drug addiction. Justice reinvestment strategies highlight the economic inefficiency of prisons to gain attention and garner support from legislators, and the new legislation introduced in Massachusetts aims to accomplish the same goals, while ameliorating the lives of the thousands of inmates and their families and communities in our state.
The first section of this bill calls for the repeal of mandatory minimum drug sentences and the reduction of certain low-level felonies to misdemeanors, both of which reduce the economic and social costs of extended prison terms, while maintaining punishment for lawbreakers. The second section focuses on the reinvestment of the money saved from the implementation of the first section, and making sure that resources are directed towards programs such as job training to address the skills gaps identified by MA industry leaders, transitional job and pre-apprenticeship programs, youth jobs, and evidence-based programs that specialize in drop-out prevention and recovery to give at-risk youth a second chance. These programs would be targeted at the individuals in our society who are traditionally underserved and face barriers to employment such as ex-offenders, victims of violence, veterans, and youth. The goal of this legislation is to reevaluate the way Massachusetts punishes offenders and learn how to improve in a way that is more just and more economically efficient, and then to use the cost savings to hopefully make for better communities and potentially lower crime overall. These two sections work together on both issues at the heart of mass incarceration: the economic injustice that can lead to crime, and the unjust ways in which we punish criminals.
All of this being said, you may be wondering why this is important to Mass NOW. At Mass NOW, we strive to focus on our six priority issues, which include economic equality, reproductive rights, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, ending violence against women, and constitutional and civil rights. Although women are incarcerated at a rate much lower than men, this is still an issue important to Mass NOW because it is the result of racial injustice and economic inequality as well as deeply concerning for LGBTQ rights and constitutional and civil rights. Furthermore, it is deeply a women’s issue because as mentioned earlier, the rates at which women are incarcerated in Massachusetts and across the U.S. have been increasing dramatically. There are also issues specific to women in prison, such as the shackling of pregnant women throughout labor. Although this has been banned in Massachusetts, some states continue to practice shackling. Transwomen are often misgendered upon conviction and sent to the wrong prisons, which can be hugely detrimental to the individual, and once there they can be denied hormone therapy. A disproportionate number of imprisoned men also means more single-income households and more broken communities. It has been proven that households lead by single parents are more likely to be affected my minimum wage laws and more likely to qualify for government assistance. Despite these seemingly momentous problems, many organizations are working hard everyday to educate people about the prison system and to improve it. In Massachusetts alone, organizations such as the Prison Birth Project, Jobs Not Jails, and Black and Pink are working towards a more just society. Injustice anywhere is a women’s issue because no movement can be complete without an intersectional approach. We have seen crime go down in Massachusetts and across the country, so why has Massachusetts not pursued the criminal justice reform it so desperately needs?
To learn more about prisons in Massachusetts and the current efforts to reform them see:
“State Senate leaders call for criminal justice overhaul” David Scharfenberg; Boston Globe
Justice Reinvestment Legislation via Sen. Chang-Diaz
Jobs Not Jails
The Sentencing Project
National Institute of Corrections
Prison Birth Project
Black and Pink Boston Chapter
Mass INC Report on Criminal Justice Reform