By Michael J. Ashe Jr.
Recently, the state released a “Corrections Master Plan” in response to a mandate by Governor Deval Patrick to “define the most cost effective approach for investing capital to create a more integrated and efficient (correctional) system.”
One aspect of the plan relates to offender community reentry. From a public safety standpoint, reentry is of paramount importance because 93 percent of state prisoners and 100 percent of county prisoners will re-enter the cities and towns of our Commonwealth.
In Massachusetts, an individual sentenced to 2 ½ years or less is sent to our county system, administered by our county sheriffs, and anyone receiving a sentence of more than 30 months is sent to our state prison system, administered by the state Department of Correction. Each year, 17,000 offenders are released from our county system and 3,000 are released from our state system. We want these people to be full participants in community life, not shadows on the sidelines.
The Corrections Master Plan calls for the state Department of Correction to utilize county sheriffs to reintegrate state prisoners back into their local communities at the end of their sentences. This is because, by virtue of being embedded in these locales, sheriffs are best suited to provide reentry supervision and support.
Simple common sense tells us that some of this is a matter of geography; that the closer an offender is to the support and resources of his community, the better the possibility of a seamless transition into positive, productive, law-abiding, community life. County sheriffs can help offenders tap into local organizations that can assist in the success of their reentry through proposed regional pre-release centers administered by the sheriffs.
At the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department we make a great effort to challenge those in our custody to pick up the tools and directions to build a law-abiding life while they are inside the fences of our county House of Correction.
Indeed, we say that “vommunity reentry begins on day one of incarceration."
But all of our efforts inside our secure fences, and along our continuum of lesser security, can be for naught if, upon release, offenders fall off a cliff into a chasm of old ways and old days. That is why the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department established an After Incarceration Support Systems program to stay involved with offenders during the first crucial months of reentry, to be a bridge to community life, if you will. These first few months are the crucial time when the offender either takes root in the positive elements of the community or fails to do so. To assist us with this effort, we have established over 300 “community partnerships,” with local agencies. To borrow a phrase: "It takes a village to reenter an offender."
The results of our efforts speak for themselves. After one year, over 80 percent of those released from the Hampden County correctional system are still free and functioning in our county. This is despite the fact that our typical inmate profile includes substance abuse, dropping out of high school, and no appreciable job record or marketable skills. This is despite the fact that 30 percent of those released face potential homelessness. This is despite the fact that the crimes committed by those in county custody include those crimes with the highest rates of recidivism, such as burglary, larceny, auto theft, possessing stolen property, drug charges, etc.. And this is despite the fact that the average county-sentenced inmate spends only an average of eight months in our custody for males and five months for females after being brought to us in shackles and chains with a long history of social maladjustment.
We at the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department demonstrate daily what can be done to give inmates every opportunity to become a contributing citizen, supervised and supported by his county correctional system. What this Master Plan puts in place is, in essence, a team approach to corrections through which the state Department of Correction and the county Sheriffs work in unison for the best possible offender re-entry policies and practices. This is indeed a more integrated and efficient correctional system. We believe that the plan to utilize county corrections to supervise and support our state prisoners’ re-entry into their communities through regional pre-release centers administered by the Sheriffs is a wise one, providing for the optimal opportunity for our cities and towns, and the citizens therein, to have the safety and security, the peace and tranquility, on their streets and in their homes, that they seek and deserve.
Michael J. Ashe Jr. is sheriff of Hampden County.