As you read this, Beacon Hill is debating a "three-strikes" crime bill, while waiting for the US Attorney's Office to hand down indictments in the scandal over patronage at the probation department. The common thread connecting those two items is this: wherever the Massachusetts State Legislature gets its fingers into the criminal-justice system, the results are not pretty.

In the case of the three-strikes bill, they are pushing for a feel-good law that, if history is a guide, will unnecessarily exacerbate the state's overcrowding problem. The State Senate and Governor Deval Patrick are trying to make the best of the situation by attaching a piece of long-needed sentencing reform, but the House of Representatives is so far refusing to accept it.

As for the probation scandal, one thing it exposed was how little the legislature cared about actual performance or results in criminal-justice agencies, as long as their own personal interests were met. That has led to some reform, but only a bare minimum.

Lawmakers should, of course, play a vital role in the criminal-justice system. But too often, that involvement has meant pandering to loud agitators for knee-jerk crackdowns on criminals, or wielding budget power over courts and agencies.

The result has been a state system stuck woefully behind the times. Much like climate-change deniers, lawmakers refuse to accept the overwhelming body of research and best practices that show the benefits of a more thoughtful, evidence-based reform in criminal justice. That means less reliance on punitive mass incarceration, and more focus on rehabilitation, treatment, and supervision.

This is the direction being taken all across the country. Even conservatives have jumped aboard this reform train, as seen in efforts by governors Rick Perry in Texas and Mitch Daniels in Indiana, and advocacy by the "Right on Crime" organization. (See "Strange Bedfellows," News & Features, January 11, 2011.)

Here in Massachusetts, nearly two decades of commissions, task forces, think-tank studies, and other reports have called in vain for the state to revamp its statutes and practices.

There had been considerable optimism that Patrick would put Massachusetts on the road to reform. Although he did not campaign on it in 2006, it didn't take long in office for him to express interest in the topic. There were hints at plans for a comprehensive initiative that would include an omnibus crime bill.

It hasn't come, and doesn't look like it's going to. Instead, as people in the administration concede, Patrick has tried to push for victories in bits and pieces — such as CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) reform in 2010 — while speaking publicly about how those items fit into the larger picture of a smarter approach to public safety.

It's not hard to identify the legislature as the point of resistance. "When the legislators start talking about these issues, they automatically think about it as 'soft on crime,' " says a former Patrick administration insider. "You can't get over that hurdle."

Master Plan

A hint of Patrick's idea of comprehensive reform can be found in the new Corrections Master Plan, quietly released two weeks ago. The 10-year, $550 million proposal for new and upgraded facilities assumes that sentencing reform will become law.

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Related: Missing in action, Tea Party Progressives?, Letters to the Boston editors, February 17, 2012, More more >
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