Criminal justice reform is a historic breakthrough; vital next step is funding for reentry transitioning

By Evandro Carvalho and Dan Cullinane

Massachusetts took a historic step forward when Governor Baker recently signed into law long overdue criminal justice reform legislation that at its core seeks to break the cycle of poverty, marginalization, and incarceration that has existed for far too long. The reforms chart a new course, away from the tough-on-crime policies of the past that have disproportionately impacted communities of color and toward a better, fairer future.

But before we pat ourselves on the back, there is more work to be done.

To realize the full impact of these reforms, we must address the transition from incarceration back into the community. The communities we represent – Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury, Hyde Park, and Milton – know all too well the roadblocks facing those returning from incarceration and trying to start a new life. Men and women often leave a jail or prison in the same clothes they were wearing when they went in. They often do not have a valid ID to get a job or rent an apartment, money to buy food, or even a safe place to spend their first night outside of a cell.

To bridge the gap between incarceration and the community, we need community-based residential reentry centers supporting individuals during that critical time. In the Commonwealth, we spend more than $50,000 per year to incarcerate a single person. Quality reentry programming is absolutely the right thing to do on a human level. But it is also an important investment in ensuring that those leaving prison have a foundation for transitioning back into society, in the process making it far less likely they will reoffend.

At a reentry event this past November, we heard from a room packed with concerned community stakeholders about the potential closing of McGrath House and Brooke House, reentry programs that have operated successfully in Boston for several decades. We heard about how supportive these community-based residential reentry programs are in helping our returning citizens find permanent housing, attend reentry workshops and job training offered by partners such as Dorchester Bay Economic Development, access mental health and substance use counseling, and reconnect with their families and communities. And we heard about how their funding has been dwindling.

Since then, McGrath House, Massachusetts’s only residential reentry program exclusively for women, has closed due to lack of funding, and the Brooke House reentry program for men is in jeopardy of closing in the next few months without additional funding. A group of community stakeholders sent a letter to the Legislature in November urging us to take action to prevent the closing of the Brooke facility, which would result in a loss of 65 community-based residential reentry beds, in addition to McGrath’s 32 beds.

We answered that call. Together we co-sponsored language that – with support from many of our House colleagues, community organizations, and individuals who made their voices heard – led to the inclusion of $3 million dedicated to residential reentry programs in the House budget proposal for 2019. This would represent the state’s largest ever investment in these vital resources and prevent the troubling trend of reentry programs disappearing.

We have heard loud and clear about the impact of those programs closing from individuals who have been directly impacted. In the beginning of April, the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department and the Boston City Council hosted a hearing on reentry at the Suffolk County House of Corrections. Four incarcerated individuals spoke about their experiences, and three expressed deep concerns about where they would live the day they got out of jail. They spoke about how shelters were their only options and how that would most likely lead to a relapsing into substance abuse or reoffending, and how much they wish they had pre-release reentry programs such as McGrath House or Brooke House available to them so that they could have safe and stable housing to help get them back on their feet.

And we heard from the Pine Street Inn that the default plan should not be for an individual to leave jail or prison and walk directly through their doors. There are better options.

The Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery testified about the importance of community-based residential reentry programs in supporting individuals in recovery and connecting them with crucial substance use services and medication assisted treatment that may save their lives. Department of Public Health statistics show that recently released inmates are 120 times more likely to die from overdose than non-inmates, especially in the first few months following release.

Community-based residential reentry services are needed, and they work. They can reduce recidivism by up to 25 percent for individuals assessed as high risk, yet we are currently woefully underfunding these programs. Other states such as New Jersey, Michigan, and Ohio invest millions in them, and it is time we do the same. We urge our colleagues in the Legislature to support the $3 million budget line item for community-based residential reentry services.

Massachusetts has taken a huge step forward with criminal justice reform. Let’s make sure we carry through with a real investment in reentry.

Evandro Carvalho is the state representative for the Fifth Suffolk District. Dan Cullinane represents the Twelfth Suffolk District.