Charlie Baker’s Urban Agenda: Saying “No” (Partly, Anyway) to Bill Weld

Republican candidate for Governor Charlie Baker was in Boston this morning to announce an urban agenda. Much of it reiterates already familiar positions, like tax cuts, lifting the cap on charter schools, liberating businesses from burdensome governmental regulations, etc., etc. But it does include one topic that has not been much discussed in his campaign so far — incarceration.

The Baker platform on incarceration, essentially, is to do less of it. He’s proposing:

  • to focus more on rehabilitation and less on building new prisons,
  • to provide alternatives to incarceration (including drug treatment), and
  • to reduce recidivism and increase family reunification.

The most interesting aspect of his agenda, to this Baker-watcher, is how dramatically it differs from — and improves on — that of his former boss, Governor Bill Weld.

Let’s go to the Wayback Machine for a trip back a couple decades.

It’s 1995, the first year of Governor Weld’s second term. Charlie Baker has earned a promotion — he’s the Governor’s chief budget advisor. The Governor’s highest spending priority is a $700 million prison bond bill (Herald 10/10/95) that will build more than 4000 new cells to alleviate overcrowding in the state’s prisons and jails (Globe 2/14/95). On the subject of prisons, Weld is cool to ideas about alternatives to incarceration like drug treatment.  When the Legislature balks at the price tag for the new prison space and proposes instead a smaller prison expansion to be paired with the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and for alternatives to incarceration including drug treatment, the Governor says no way:  “People selling drugs into our communities are wreaking a lot of social havoc, so I am not in favor of chipping away at the mandatory minimums” (Globe 11/3/95).  He increases the political pressure on the Legislature to approve his prison construction plan (and hypes the overcrowding issue) by sending 300 medium security inmates from jails in Massachusetts to jails in Texas, despite studies showing that “the more someone is part of a cohesive family unit, the better the prospects for post-prison adjustment.” (Globe 11/6/95, citing Franklin Zimring, director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Earl Warren Legal Institute.) The Governor and former prosecutor scoffs at this evidence from the social sciences:  police work and prisons are “about all” that helped to cut back on crime, despite what “‘criminologists sharpening their pencils in the ivory tower'” might think (Globe 11/11/95).  So much for rehabilitation, family reunification and alternatives to incarceration.

The Legislature eventually agreed to build more prison cells (although not as many as Governor Weld wanted) and established a program of community corrections, perhaps a first recognition in our state that we cannot build our way out of a crime problem.

Such a transformation Baker has shown on this issue.  Is it possible that when he runs for Governor in 2018 (and let’s face it, the Mass GOP has no farm team), he will have seen the light on tax cuts and charter schools as well?

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