Next step for Melissa’s Law: They do all come back

Jeremy Travis wrote the primer on offender re-entry under the title But They All Come Back.  Even under the reforms just enacted in Massachusetts, most offenders will return to our communities. Indeed, most offenders will continue to cycle through our houses of correction and return to the places where they committed their crimes.

I hope all thoughtful people working inside the criminal justice process will take the time to look at how the cycle of offense-arrest-disposition (probation or incarceration)-reentry-offense plays out in their jurisdictions.  I am pretty well persuaded that we will continue to see a need to re-direct scare custodial funds from institutional corrections to parole.  We are going to see that holding an impact-player for even two-thirds or more of his sentence (it’s ‘hims’ we are concerned about) and then letting him out unsupervised is self-defeating. More importantly, the new Melissa sanctions implicate only a fraction of the people who generate victimization, fear and disorder in our communities.  It assumes a logic in the progression of sanctions that is not evident.

Offenders do not progress logically through their three swings the way batters do at the plate.  It may take 100 at-bats for a really bad guy to get three strikes and only a three or four swings for a less talented offender.  That is, sometimes chuckleheads get pinched and convicted for bad stuff while impact players get pinched for small stuff.  We sentence the offense, not the person and his true history and his impact.  And absent a more systematic approach to criminal justice, there is no way for the process to work otherwise. In court,  Chuckie Chucklehead and Pat Impact are just forms in a file on a busy weekday morning.

On and after parole staffed by a robust parole service may do more in the long term, in my opinion, to realize the righteous goals of Melissa’s law.  A parole service with enough skilled and motivated staff officers would be able to keep track of who is trying to get it right and who is not.  They can help the majority who are getting it right and reduce the options and opportunities of the incorrigibles. This is true in the same way that the Mass. Major Cities Chiefs advocacy of pre-trial electronic monitoring of impact players makes so much sense.

Back in the high-energy days of the pro-active Police-Probation strategy “Operation Nite Lite,” offenders would regularly report that they would prefer to go to the House of Correction and wrap up their sentences rather than be supervised in the community.  Offenders’ discomfort was one of the early clues that the institutions were on to something that worked.

Finally, here’s a thought on how police might take the lead to reduce polarization around this law.  Let’s bring everyone with a stake in the law together to see how it plays out in the coming months.  Maybe hold a symposium on Melissa’s Law at Northeastern or Harvard or someplace.  We’ll wait — 10 months or so? — until we get some cases decided under the law and then evaluate outcomes by some simple, agreed criteria.  Initially, the criteria would have to be about fairness and justice in reference to who is getting sentenced, because we are years from outcome measures.  That way we can discuss facts instead of beliefs.  We can look at whether the list of three-strikes offense is too broad or too narrow.   And why not keep paying attention, together?

Every criminal law ever enacted by humans criminalized more than it intended and generated other unintended consequences, some good, some bad.  When we enacted speed limits we did not intend to stop someone taking a dying person to the hospital.   So let’s start a conversation and see if we can’t develop a common framework in which to consider what happens.  We all do, after all,  share common values and goals when it comes to justice and keeping people safe.

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About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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