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YES WE CAN. Part II: Corrections Reform

Posted by Scott Harshbarger  October 18, 2010 07:00 AM

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The recent news that Department of Corrections Commissioner, Harold Clarke, will be leaving Massachusetts for the top Corrections post in the Commonwealth of Virginia comes as a surprise. Commissioner Clarke, who throughout his career has advanced community-based reentry programs, has been hand-picked by one of the country’s most conservative governors.

Moving from our Commonwealth to the Commonwealth south of the Mason-Dixon line would be even more surprising but for the fact that Virginia has committed to a correctional system that is evidence-based, collaborative and focused on the successful community reentry of offenders returning home as a cornerstone of its public safety agenda. (See CRJ’s Crime and Justice Institute publication, Commonwealth of Virginia: Roadmap for Evidence-Based Practices in Community Corrections.)

As Board Chair of Community Resources for Justice (CRJ), as Chair of the Corrections Reform Commission (2003-2005), and as someone with a long history of leadership and involvement in criminal justice and public safety issues, I am particularly concerned that Harold Clarke is leaving now (after less than three years) because right now Massachusetts is finally poised for long overdue reform. The fact is that, in terms of tax payer dollars, accountable performance and public safety, we can no longer afford state correctional and probation systems that are structurally and administratively ineffective and inefficient – riddled with political patronage, funded with large budgets and high costs, and unnecessarily poor outcomes. This is all the more unacceptable because we know what an effective system looks like – how it is structured, how it must operate and how to monitor and measure success. We know how to build systems that improve public safety, all at a lower cost to taxpayers.

We also know that no Commissioner can accomplish what needs to be done in a vacuum. In the comprehensive Final Report of the Governor's Commission on Corrections Reforms which has been treated by Commissioner Clarke (and others) as a Reform Blueprint, we made 18 major recommendations for reform, but only 10 were primarily within the purview and responsibility of the DOC itself. Meaningful progress that truly improves fiscal efficiency, accountable, effective performance and public safety requires a partnership with and a commitment from the Governor, other executive agencies and, critically, the Legislature, including the creation of an external, independent advisory body of professionals charged with increasing transparency and accountability in Corrections and Probation.

(See also the transcript of my testimony, February 8, 2006, day 2 of The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons public hearing. This panel focused on developing consensus about what forms of fundamental change are necessary to make prisons and jails safer, more humane, and therefore more effective correctional institutions.)

CRJ has been involved in this work for over a hundred years and has an impressive track record of success here in Massachusetts and in assisting many states across the country. We have the experts right here on Boylston Street in Boston. The Directors of Community Resources for Justice believe so strongly in this opportunity that we have adopted our Public Safety Leadership Platform which outlines our recommendations for what such a reformed correctional and probation system can offer to the people of Massachusetts. There is no better political solution to the problems recently featured in The Boston Globe Spotlight Series than a system that works collaboratively, transparently and effectively.

While I wish Commissioner Clarke great success in his new position, I hope we in Massachusetts realize that the "Change we can believe in" is right before us – and will enhance public safety AND save significant tax payer dollars! We do know how to do this – what we lack, frankly, is the political leadership, the public will and support, and, above all, a sense of urgency. It is time for all of us as citizens to use this election season as a "teachable and educable moment" by challenging our current and future elected leaders to respond – and if not now, when?

This is a Community Voices blog. This blog is not written or edited by the staff of Boston.com or The Boston Globe. The author is solely responsible for its contents.
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About the author

Scott Harshbarger's distinguished public career includes serving two terms as Massachusetts Attorney General (and President of the National Association of Attorneys General)  and as the Democratic candidate for Governor of More »

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