Lawmakers, law enforcement officials talk goals and challenges of criminal justice reform

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Reduce recidivism and keep young adults from becoming career criminals.

Meeting those goals was the focus of a daylong forum Wednesday at Bard College at Simon's Rock to explore ways to reform the criminal justice system in Massachusetts. The event was sponsored by the Osher Lifetime Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College.

Berkshire County Sheriff Thomas Bowler, who was among the guests speakers, stressed the importance of in-house rehabilitation programs at the Berkshire County Jail & House of Correction.

"Take those incarcerated, give them the skills and resources to re-enter their community and make them a better person than when they arrived [at our facility]," Bowler said.

Mental health counseling, drug addiction prevention, work release, landscaping and gardening programs, Bowler noted, among the ways his staff helps the inmates before they are released. The challenge, he said, is keeping the programs funded, relying heavily on grants and little support from the state.

A comprehensive criminal justice reform bill the state Senate passed last week includes establishing a trust fund of the money saved from the reforms to be spent on helping inmates adjust to life after incarceration. The proposed trust fund is missing from the House version of the legislation representatives are expected to debate Monday.

"The cost savings to programs to reduce recidivism is where we should be investing in the criminal justice," said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, who also spoke at the event.

Both bills eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, mainly for illegal drug use, in hopes of reducing inmate population statewide.

"We need to empower judges to make sure people get treatment rather than give them a criminal record," Hinds told the Eagle after his keynote address at the forum.

"Ninety percent of our [inmates] have an addiction to drugs or alcohol — it's a huge problem to overcome," Bowler noted.

A Council of State Governments Justice Center study of the commonwealth's criminal justice system found it lacking in rehabilitating state prisoners.

Nearly half couldn't complete the required programs before being released due to a long waiting list, according Ben Forman, research director at MassInc.

"CSG found individuals didn't get the programs that studies show reduce recidivism," he said.

Bowler said finding housing and jobs for soon-to-be released inmates are challenging, but rewarding when successful.

"LTI Smart Glass [in Pittsfield] still has people that we had five, six years ago that are now supervisors," he said.

One program Bowler would welcome in Berkshire County is Roca, a 30-year-old organization passionate keeping high at-risk 18- to 24-year-olds from becoming repeat offenders.

Founded in Chelsea in 1988, Roca has helped thousands of young adults in 21 Massachusetts communities served by for locations, including one in Springfield.

That site's director, Christine Judd, cited persistence as the nonprofit's motto and the reason 91 percent of graduates have no new arrests, and 88 percent keep a job for six or more months after graduation.

"It requires us to be relentless, to never give up on our participants," she said. "We don't take no for an answer and a lot of our young people tell us to `Go to hell.' "

Judd noted the key is building trust between Roca youth workers and the young men and women they look to keep on the straight and narrow.

"You help them make the right decisions," she said.

Roca also works closely with will local police departments to break down the barriers between the officers and young adults in their city or town.

"When we talk about criminal justice reform, we must begin with law enforcement," Judd said.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233

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