Letter From The President Of The Boston Bar Association

2008-02-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

The Boston Bar Association has long been on the front bench in the debates about sentencing reform. For over two decades we have encouraged discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of the Commonwealth's criminal justice system, especially with respect to sentencing reform and prisoner re-entry. We have called for the repeal of mandatory sentencing laws - particularly the harsh and ineffective drug mandatory minimums. We have also encouraged the establishment of an effective system of intermediate sanctions in lieu of incarceration for nonviolent offenders, including providing improved parole options for nonviolent drug offenders to transition eligible candidates into the community.

What we have not talked enough about, but should, are alternative approaches to dealing with non-violent offenders, particularly in misdemeanor or low-level felony cases, that serve these same interests. The traditional response to such offenses is either a short-term jail sentence or "time served." Imagine, however, a court that could craft meaningful short-term sentences as an alternative to jail or no jail.

This approach is now a reality. Nationally there are more than 30 "community courts" that focus on quality-of-life offenses such as drug possession, shoplifting, vandalism, and low-level theft.These community courts combine punishment and help by sentencing low-level offenders to perform visible community restitution and to receive on-site social services, including drug treatment, individual counseling, and job training. They have successfully increased engagement between the community and the courts, reduced crime, and improved perception of neighborhood safety. The social services these courts offer are typically available to offenders and non-offenders alike.

Such community justice models are often based on the Midtown (Manhattan) Community Court or on the Red Hook Community Justice Center, located in one of the poorest areas of Brooklyn. The Red Hook Community Justice Center, which has been the subject of a public television documentary and numerous articles and studies, is a hugely successful experiment in community justice designed to get at the root causes of many of the community's legal problems. It has helped low-level crime drop in the area by over 60 percent in the few years of its existence. The court offers a GED program, a housing resource center, job training, substance abuse treatment and other social services. Community service is often a large component of the sentences meted out there. Lest you think this is just a liberal panacea, be assured that sentences in such community courts often are tougher with respect to low-level crime, and the counseling/treatment alternatives usually last far, far longer than the time spent serving the applicable jail sentence.

In addition to broad community justice models, there are other more limited alternatives sometimes called problem-solving justice programs that are offered within traditional court systems. For example, in response to studies showing that persons with mental illness are significantly overrepresented in jails and prisons, the "mental health court" has emerged. These courts typically have separate criminal dockets for defendants with mental illness, divert defendants from incarceration into community-based mental health treatment, and carefully monitor treatment and impose sanctions for non-compliance. Similarly, the problem of prisoner re-entry is being constructively dealt with in some jurisdictions by "prisoner re-entry courts," with the goal of reducing prisoner recidivism and fostering a successful return to the community. Prisoner re-entry courts require collaboration between parole and treatment agencies to help offenders deal with barriers to obtaining employment, housing, medical and therapeutic treatment. Active and comprehensive oversight, swift sanctions for violations of conditions, and incentives for attaining re-entry milestones are also provided.

If the enhancement of public safety is a primary goal of our criminal justice system, we owe it to ourselves to pay attention to these experiments in community and problem-solving justice. Improving community attitudes towards our courts and criminal justice system is an important byproduct of such alternatives. Helping more individuals to reintegrate into society and stay out of the criminal justice system is both cost-effective and unarguably the right thing to do.


Anthony Doniger