By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON — More than two years after comprehensive criminal justice reform slipped from the list of must-tackle issues on Beacon Hill, the collective focus of lawmakers on addressing the opioid addiction crisis may be breathing new life into the debate.
Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, who on Wednesday morning will address the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce for the first time in his new role, plans to discuss his desire to address sentencing reform over the next two years.
The Amherst Democrat intends to link criminal justice reforms to the efforts already underway in the Legislature and by Gov. Charlie Baker to combat the rising scourge of opioid abuse, according to advisors familiar with his speech.
Rosenberg does not plan to lay out a prescription for reform, but the Senate’s new top Democrat sees potential in work done in other states to reform the justice system’s approach to drug offenses.
With inmates convicted of drug offenses or other crimes stemming from substance abuse filling houses of correction at a cost of $53,000 a year in Massachusetts, the potential for savings and reinvestment in substance abuse treatment could find traction at a time when budgets are being strained by fixed costs like health care and energy.
Other states, including Texas, North Carolina and Washington, have had success working with organizations like the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and Pew Research Center.
Texas, according to senior officials in Rosenberg’s office who have been researching the issue, managed to save $500 million, reducing overall prison populations and reinvesting half the savings into substance abuse treatment and community corrections programs.
Similar work done in North Carolina saved that state $560 million over six years, while Washington was able to cut its per person corrections cost by $9,000 with a shift away from incarceration to community substance abuse treatment.
Sentencing reform stirred strong views at a forum last month. Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants lashed into mandatory minimum sentencing of drug offenders, saying the current set-up needs to be abolished because it is “unfair” to minorities, fails to address the drug epidemic and is a “poor investment” of public funds.
In a sharp rejoinder, Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley said Gants was advocating for a “return to a failed policy” from 30 years ago. When judges had “unfettered” discretion, they exercised it “poorly,” Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley said.
Rosenberg, according to aides, is intrigued by the idea of working with Pew or the Council of State Governments (CSG) officials who have experience helping states craft criminal justice reforms.
Sen. William Brownsberger, the Senate chair of the Judiciary Committee, is also likely to play a key role in any steps taken toward criminal justice reform, with his committee slated to consider scores of bills filed this session dealing with the topic.
Any effort to entice the Justice Reinvestment Initiative or CSG’s Justice Center to work with Massachusetts would require buy-in from House leaders and Gov. Baker.
While Pew has been working with the state to gather data on sentencing practices and commissions have been formed to review the system, the last major reform push came in 2012 when Gov. Deval Patrick pressed for a sentencing and parole overhaul, including the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
Patrick ultimately signed a bill that cracked down on repeat violent offenders with minor changes to drug sentencing guidelines. Patrick got a verbal commitment from legislative leaders to return to the issue of correctional supervision and broad-based sentencing reform in the new session starting in 2013. But criminal justice reform failed to materialize over the past two years.
A MassINC poll conducted in January 2014 found that 67 percent of residents preferred to reform the system to send fewer people to prison rather build new jails, and 83 percent said sending drug users to treatment instead of prison would be effective at reducing crime.
Previewing some of his thinking on the issue, Rosenberg on Tuesday said Massachusetts could take a page out of book from “red states” that have reformed their minimum mandatory sentencing laws.
Suggesting outcomes could be better for drug offenders remanded to treatment rather than prison, Rosenberg, during an appearance on Boston Herald Radio, said, “It’s much more expensive to house them in jail than to put them into a treatment program and give them after-care.”