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From Issue Spot: Focus Needed on Entire Criminal Justice System

Monday, November 05, 2012

When the next legislative session begins on January 2nd, you can expect to see us working on proposals that are not necessarily flashy but which are designed to address flaws in existing Massachusetts laws. For example, we will refile bills regarding the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act, the Forensic Sciences Advisory Board, and an update of certain banking laws. Our ongoing public policy agenda also focuses on continuing to work on improving our justice system as a whole. In this context, criminal justice issues become salient. As a big picture thinker, the BBA likes to tackle issues holistically.

Say the word “holistic” and healthcare springs to mind. But many of the same principles apply across disciplines. In the medical world, a holistic approach means considering all elements of a patient’s health: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Patients actively participate in their own medical care by taking preventative measures. Long gone are the days when a doctor would simply prescribe a patient medication or perform an operation hoping to cure an ailment. Now, doctors and patients work collaboratively to determine the best course of action and to make healthy life choices that promote overall good health.

A similar approach should be applied to the criminal justice system. As with health, it is dangerous to ignore indicators that the system is not living up to its potential. When something does go seriously wrong, it can take something akin to radical surgery to fix. This could mean more financial resources, more oversight, an investigation, or some other type of reform.

The justice system is complex. It’s made up of interconnected yet individual departments, agencies, and branches. Problems in one area will almost always have ramifications on other parts of the system. The BBA takes a holistic approach to criminal justice because success isn’t measured just by securing more resources or the passage of a single piece of legislation. Success should also be measured by reducing our recidivism rates, improving public safety and reintegrating individuals into society.

The BBA works to identify areas for improvement that would contribute to the overall wellness of the entire system. Over the years, the BBA’s reports and recommendations have covered a wide array of topics such as the Report of the BBA Task Force on Children in Need of Services, the Report of the Task Force on Parole and Community Reintegration, and Getting it Right: Improving the Accuracy and Reliability of the Criminal Justice System in Massachusetts.

Additionally, the BBA actively works with several outside groups tasked with identifying problems while recommending measures that would provide more efficiency to the justice system. We have a BBA member on the Massachusetts Civil Infractions Commission – a group charged with recommending permanent changes designed to reduce the number of lesser criminal cases in which public counsel would be required. We also have a member on the Criminal Justice Commission – a group commissioned to study and make recommendations on the entire criminal justice system in Massachusetts.

But there’s more to be done. Building on the successes over the last four years in the area of CORI reform and sentencing reform, the BBA will continue to work towards eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

The criminal justice system should function in a way that does more than just punish those who break the law. Improving public safety needs to mean more than just incarcerating people. Moving away from a philosophy of being “tough on crime” to one of being “smart on crime” requires taking a good look at the underlying problems that contribute to criminal behavior. There needs to be a change to the culture of crime and punishment. Fair and appropriate punishment is important, but real rehabilitation and reintegration into our society is going to be what it takes to break the cycle of recidivism. To be “smart on crime” we need a comprehensive – and holistic – approach to improving the overall criminal justice system.

-Kathleen Joyce
Government Relations Director
Boston Bar Association

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