Since becoming governor in 2007, Patrick has repeatedly called for large-scale sentencing and corrections changes, focused on returning more sentencing discretion to judges and making it easier for prisoners who have served their time to reenter society.
At least two of his state budget proposals laid out massive overhauls to the state’s prison system and sentencing guidelines. But most of those reforms were stripped from the state budget before the final version made it to the governor’s desk.
Still, Patrick administration officials note that they have been able to push some changes through the Legislature, including easing disclosure rules for ex-prisoners seeking jobs, scaling back mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, and creating the Special Commission to Study the Criminal Justice System.
Advocates for more sweeping change note that many other states — including Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas — have more drastically scaled back minimum sentencing requirements and beefed up reentry programs as a way to cut costs.
Meanwhile, many prominent national Republicans who once trumpeted tough-on-crime stances — including Governor Rick Perry of Texas, former governor Jeb Bush of Florida, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich — now call for sentencing changes and rehabilitation programs as a way to curb government spending on prisons.
Patrick administration officials note that many states that have changed their laws have utilized federal money from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a pot of funding for data-driven criminal justice programs, which the state is currently pursuing.
“The JRI initiative has been critical in helping other states move to a new way of thinking about the administration of justice,” said Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety. “We are optimistic about the positive outcomes it could bring to Massachusetts.”
The key to accomplishing sentencing overhaul will be cooperation between prosecutors and defense attorneys, who frequently lobby opposite sides of corrections issues.
“If we can get the prosecutors and the defense attorneys on the same page, we’ve won half the battle,” Budd said.
The coalition and state lawmakers both point to the substantial overhaul of the state’s drug sentencing and mandatory minimum laws included in last summer’s habitual offender law as an example of the way forward.
The law, which created a three-strikes provision that removed the possibility of parole for repeat offenders of heinous crimes, was praised by Patrick as “balanced” and state lawmakers now point to it as the type of compromise needed to reach consensus on further corrections changes.
“That debate really opened a door, that I think can be opened even wider, in terms of sentencing reform,” said state Representative Brad Hill, of Ipswich, who helped broker the final compromise on the habitual offender bill.
Hill, a Republican, said that seeing how other states, specifically Texas, were able to implement treatment and reentry programs for drug offenders in order to close prisons and cut costs “opened [his] eyes” to the need for Massachusetts to reach compromise on changes to the prison system.
Despite ongoing pressure from some prosecutors to remain “tough on crime,” Hill said state legislators understand that no longer means rejecting all efforts to reduce sentences for some offenders.
“The mindset is very clear,” he said. “We want to take the most heinous criminals off the streets and put them behind bars. Everyone else, we want to help.”