Reducing Recidivism: Start with Low-hanging Fruit

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.

The Conservative Wing of the Republican Party Is Not Going Away Without (Another) Fight

While Globe reporter Andrew Ryan was in church on Sunday, someone left this leaflet opposing the transgender public accommodations bill that is pending in the state Legislature on his car.

Authorship of the leaflet was claimed by a group called “Renew MA Coalition.” You can learn more about the coalition on its Facebook page, which features a photograph of Presidential candidate Ted Cruz and conservative State Rep. Jim Lyons flanking Chanel Prunier, the former Republican national committeewoman from Massachusetts. Prunier was turned out of office last week in a very close election by Gov. Baker’s choice, State Rep. Keiko Orrall. Orrall’s victory capped the Governor’s largely successful effort to replace socially conservative members of the state Republican committee with moderates more in line with Baker’s views. Those views include support for gay marriage, but so far at least, do not include support for the transgender public accommodations bill.

As the Governor continues to face considerable pressure to endorse the bill (his failure to do so caused the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce to uninvite him to an event later this month at which he was originally to be honored), the conservative wing of his party continues to hold firm to its abiding opposition to rights for transgender persons. Continue reading

The Supreme Judicial Court Nomination Factoids You’ve Been Waiting For

[Update, February 5: Justice Spina, who turns 70 this October, announced today that he will also retire in August. Because the Court’s term runs from September to August, this will likely make for a smoother transition.] 

On Wednesday, Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy announced that he will retire in August. This means that Governor Baker will be appointing a majority of the members of the SJC — and pretty soon. Later this year, Justice Francis Spina turns 70, and under a state constitutional amendment approved by the voters in 1972, must retire.  Justices Margot Botsford and Geraldine Hines reach the retirement age of 70 in 2017.  That’s a majority.

Here are some SJC nomination factoids.  Use them to amaze your friends.

Since the 1972 state constitutional amendment took effect 44 years ago, two other Governors besides Baker have had the opportunity to appoint an SJC majority: Governors Cellucci and Patrick.  Soon Baker will join them and will beat their times by several years.

Since 1972, every Governor but two got to make a couple SJC appointments: Jane Swift and Mitt Romney didn’t get to make any.

When asked yesterday for names of SJC role models, Baker named Justices Spina and Cordy, which makes sense — they are the two current SJC Justices who were nominated by Republican governor Cellucci.  But as it happens, Governor Cellucci, along with Governor Weld, launched the judicial careers of four of the five other SJC Justices, all of whom were elevated to the SJC by Deval Patrick: Governor Weld appointed Ralph Gants and Barbara Lenk to the Superior Court and Fernande Duffly to the Probate and Family Court in the 1990’s. Governor Paul Cellucci appointed Geraldine Hines to the Superior Court in 2001. Bipartisanship reigns.

The constitutional amendment that mandates retirement at age 70 was approved by the voters three-to-one in 1972. Some of those voters were 26 then, now they’re 70. Life expectancy then was 71.2 years, now it’s 78.7. There’s a constitutional amendment before the Legislature this session that would raise the retirement age to 76, but the Judiciary Committee has given it an unfavorable report.

Judges in other states where a mandatory retirement age applies have sued their states, arguing that such laws discriminate against them on the basis of age in violation of their constitutional rights.  No success so far.

Name that Candidate

One of the candidates for statewide office (Governor, Lt. Governor, Treasurer, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Auditor) in 2014 is most closely associated with the policy position described in the next paragraph. Guesses are welcome in the comments. You could win the opportunity of knowing just how smart you are. Answer tomorrow.

The federal welfare reform bill that President Clinton signed into law prohibited the states from using federal funds to pay for food stamps, welfare, Medicaid and disability benefits to most immigrants who were legally residing in the U.S. Some in Massachusetts, believing strongly that legally-present immigrants should receive the same treatment as U.S. citizens, proposed a partial restoration of these public benefits by paying for them entirely with state funds. Their plan to provide cash and food assistance as well as basic medical coverage to the 30,000 Massachusetts immigrants who would lose coverage under federal law would cost the state about $40 million annually.

_____________________________

(August 5, 2014) ANSWER: The answer is Charlie Baker, who was Secretary of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance in 1997 when his boss, Governor Bill Weld, proposed a program of benefits for the immigrants made ineligible by federal welfare reform. The program was put into place in 1997. It lasted until 2002, when it became a casualty of the post 9/11 recessionary economy, and has not been restored.

Congrats to Tweeps @dtfan579 and @judymeredith for answering correctly.

Sunshine Week For Open Government: Our “Before” Picture

(This week is Sunshine Week, a national initiative to discuss the importance of open government. My contribution is a tale from nearly 20 years ago, when a bill cutting capital gains taxes passed the Massachusetts Legislature with hardly anybody in the Legislature knowing about it. The story will help to correct an impression that the Republicans in our state would like to cultivate — that government secrecy is entirely the fault of the other party, although nobody comes out looking good. Sunshine aficionados — think of this as our “before” picture, compared to which our “after” picture will shine with even greater glory.)

Late in 1994, what Governor William Weld wanted really badly was a cut in state capital gains taxes. What House Speaker Charles Flaherty and Senate President William Bulger wanted really badly was an increase in the base salary for legislators, which had remained at $30,000 for more than a decade.

So the Governor, the Speaker and the Senate President made a deal. First, the Legislature sent the Governor the pay raise bill, which increased the base salary for Legislators to $46,000. The Governor did not sign the bill right away, but instead allowed it to sit on his desk while the Speaker and Senate President, late on a Wednesday afternoon, managed to pass the Governor’s tax cut without their members’ knowledge. Here’s how that happened.

A bill entitled “Tax Relief for Low Income Families,” was very quietly amended in the House to include the Governor’s capital gains tax cut. The amendment was offered by Republican Representative Edward Teague, and was quickly adopted on a voice vote. Then the bill (its title was not changed), was just as quickly passed by the Senate and sent to the Governor who wasted little time signing both the pay raise and the capital gains tax cut into law. We will probably never know who in the Legislature was in on the deal other than the Speaker, the Senate President and Representative Teague, but it was a very small group.

When the swap came to light, nearly everyone was outraged, especially the legislators who had been unaware of the last-minute amendment and understandably feared that their constituents would think they were out of the loop. New legislation of such import would ordinarily be brought to everyone’s attention, but this was apparently a special case. The Globe editorial page fumed — “arrogant troika,” they called the perpetrators. The members of the arrogant troika got out of Dodge for several days (on a “factfinding” mission to Ireland) to let things cool down. And eventually things did.

An afterword: today, neither of the laws involved in the deal is still in effect. The base salary for Legislators is now set by a formula tied to the median household income in the state, the result of a constitutional amendment ratified in 1999, and Governor Weld’s capital gains tax cut was undone in 2002. Sic transit gloria Troika.