USALI has been working with experts in in Asia to share information about criminal justice reform generally and in China to share information about “bail reform” in particular. In fact, we have a bilingual book scheduled for publication later this month comparing pre-trial detention regimes in the United States and China.
In that spirit, we note that, according to our colleagues at the Brennan Center, Massachusetts has recently enacted reforms that have the following features:
Bail reform: Nationwide, 65 percent of those held in local jails haven’t been convicted of a crime. Instead, they’re awaiting pending court action, and many can’t afford the bail amount that would let them out. This legislation lays out important procedural requirements, including that judges now need to justify in writing those instances in which bail is set so high as to prevent someone’s release. It also creates a commission to pursue additional improvements in bail reform. Until recently, Massachusetts courts didn’t have to justify amounts set. That changed in August with a ruling by the state’s high court requiring judges to consider financial circumstances of defendants in setting bail.
Increased use of diversion: The nation’s jails and prisons, including those in Massachusetts, house far too many individuals suffering from mental illness or substance abuse issues. In Boston’s Suffolk County Jail, 85 percent of people are incarcerated for drug or alcohol offenses, and more than 42 percent have mental health problems. With this reform, Massachusetts will require all district attorneys to create pre-arraignment diversion programs for veterans, individuals with substance abuse issues, or people suffering from mental illness. These alternatives to incarceration have shown promise of preventing repeat contact with law enforcement and steering people to needed treatment and services. The new law also expands restorative justice diversion programs that aim to reduce incarceration and repair wrongs of crime.
The Massachusetts law includes other reforms that should reduce incarcerations rates and ease transition to society. These include:
- Greater support for reentry transition
- Makes it easier for judges to waive court-imposed fees
- Raising minimum age of criminal responsibility and age of criminal majority
- Eliminates mandatory minimums for many drug crimes
- Raised monetary threshold for property crime to qualify as a felony