BOSTON — Fear often trumps levelheaded reasoning when it comes to criminal justice policy in Massachusetts. With audience-hungry news broadcasts constantly fanning the flames, counterproductive laws have accumulated like weeds on a long neglected lot. This has repercussions for everyone, but the pain is especially sharp in Gateway Cities. If these communities are going to provide solid pathways to the American dream in a challenging economy, we must confront this reality.
A new report from the nonpartisan think-tank MassINC demonstrates the extent to which the overuse of incarceration hurts Gateway Cities by mapping the Worcester County Sheriff's intake data: On some Worcester streets, admissions to correctional facilities come from home after home; a downtown Worcester neighborhood lost one out of every 10 young men to incarceration between 2009 and 2015; within the span of a single year, another neighborhood saw 350 admissions to the county's correctional facilities.
Incarceration at this level may have crossed a threshold where it actually leads to more crime rather than less —when serving time is commonplace, it carries less stigma, making the threat of a prison sentence less of a deterrent; high-rates of incarceration in a neighborhood also weaken families, schools, and civic pride, seeding more crime down the line.
The $3.6 million spent incarcerating residents of Worcester's Main South neighborhood is double the city's entire economic development budget. It is not just that these dollars could go toward efforts to build the economy, they actually subtract from the economy because incarceration makes it much more difficult for low-level offenders to get on a better path and contribute productively to the labor force.
Overuse of incarceration is also incredibly shortsighted given the mounting long-term costs of the untamed opiate crisis. Most Worcester residents serving time in county correctional facilities suffer from addiction and mental illness. Incarceration aggravates these conditions. Delivering treatment in correctional settings is more costly and less effective. And the state does not receive federal reimbursement for care provided in correctional facilities because incarcerated individuals lose their Medicaid coverage.
Note that crime is relatively low and social and economic conditions in Worcester are far better than most cities with a strong industrial legacy. If incarceration is occurring at this level in Worcester, it is no doubt even more problematic in other urban communities.
As legislators on Beacon Hill contemplate changes to the criminal justice system this fall, much is at stake for Gateway Cities. Their leaders should advocate for pending legislation replacing mandatory-minimums drug sentences with approaches that allow courts to tailor justice to the needs of the community. They should press for legislation to divert more defendants suffering from addiction out of the justice system and into appropriate behavioral health treatment. Lastly, they should work to attach savings from these reforms to more cost-effective community-based crime prevention initiatives.
Much has been written about how proud American cities like Worcester have been hammered by the loss of manufacturing jobs and the movement of middle class families out to the suburbs. This narrative overlooks the extent to which tough-on-crime policies adopted around the same time have hit urban communities with equally brutal force. Unlike manufacturing change and suburbanization, failed tough-on-crime policies are entirely of our own making. Criminal justice reform is an opportunity to correct course and fix a costly problem that is clearly decreasing economic mobility and widening income inequality in our commonwealth.
Ben Forman is research director for Mass Inc.