The Council on State Governments, at the request of the Governor and other state leaders, is taking a year-long dive into our state’s criminal justice system. A preliminary report shows we have a recidivism problem: three out of four persons convicted in Massachusetts in one recent year have been convicted before. Among the most common infractions are crimes involving motor vehicles. And within that category, the crime that has sent the most people back to jail is operating with a suspended license.
This fact is not news to advocates of a recently-enacted state law that repeals an automatic driver’s license suspension imposed on most people convicted of drug offenses. For the 27 years that this counterproductive relic from the War On Drugs was in effect (until its repeal this March), Massachusetts residents jailed for drug offenses faced an additional penalty after being released: a five year license suspension and, after the suspension period was served, a $500 license reinstatement fee. Some of those people whose licenses were suspended on this basis ran the risk of driving with a suspended license, and the unlucky ones found themselves back in jail. So a welcome side-effect of the repeal of the license suspension law is the lowering of our recidivism rate — many people who no longer need to serve this license suspension are no longer being convicted of operating with a suspended license.
And as this repeal demonstrates, we’re taking another look at our “tough on crime” presumptions, also welcome news in a state where we spend more on incarcerating people than in funding higher education for them (it costs more than $50,000 annually to incarcerate each inmate in our state prisons).
Which brings us to an amendment that the State Senate adopted in its budget debate last week. Current law requires people receiving court-ordered probation to pay a monthly fee (between $50 and $65) and provides that they can be jailed for failing to pay. Senator William Brownsberger (D-Belmont), Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committee, has concluded that this fee erects an enormous barrier to re-entry for probationers, the majority of whom are indigent and a significant number of whom have mental health and substance abuse problems. He offered a budget amendment to give the courts discretion to decide in each case whether this fee should be imposed and to end the practice of jailing probationers for failing to pay it. The amendment was adopted on a 31-7 vote, and it now goes to a House-Senate conference committee to reconcile the annual budgets that each branch has passed. If the House agrees to this provision, it then goes to the Governor. We can make re-entry easier for people on probation and save ourselves the cost of incarcerating them at the same time.
Some of our criminal justice problems are tough to crack. But not all of them.