Courting Violence

Originally published in The Boston Globe

July 21, 2010
Bobby Constantino (The Boston Globe)

Although the Probation Department patronage hiring scandal is a troubling snapshot of the pay-to-play political culture in Massachusetts, there is a more ominous story concerning probation and the courts: the criminal justice system's financial and record-keeping practices are preventing it from keeping us safe.
A 2008 report by Harvard's Rappaport Institute showed that the average court-involved youth homicide victim had 8.7 arraignments, 69.1 percent had previously been on probation, and 30.9 percent were under active probation supervision when they were killed. Court-involved youth homicide offenders had an average of 7.1 prior arraignments, 57.1 percent had previously been on probation, and 25.7 percent were under probation supervision when they killed.
These statistics demonstrate that despite as many as eight-plus chances, the court system and the Department of Probation are missing critical windows to intervene and prevent gun violence. With hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars poured annually into the courts and scores of committed probation officers and other law enforcement personnel working tirelessly to keep the streets safe, how is this possible?
In addition to punishing those found guilty of some crimes with jail time and probation supervision, the court system requires them to pay court costs, lawyer fees, probation supervision fees, fines and other costs. These fees, often totaling more than $1,000, hold offenders accountable for the cost of their crimes and generate revenue for courts. In addition to aggressively collecting these monies, the system keeps and maintains Board of Probation Records, also known as Criminal Offender Record Information, to track ex-offenders and warn employers of convictions.
Despite the obvious benefits of these practices, research shows that they are inadvertently doing more harm than good. A 2007 Bureau of Justice Assistance report found that debts assessed on indigent ex-offenders who cannot find work because of CORI lead to frustration, increased pressure to return to underground employment, and, ultimately, reincarceration. In other words, financial and record-keeping practices such as the ones being implemented in Massachusetts courts work directly against the criminal justice system's efforts to prevent crime.
Two years ago, under the leadership of Justice Edward Redd, the Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court began experimenting with a pilot program designed to address this problem. Roxbury Court, together with The Clapham Set, a non-profit organization that works with ex-offenders, developed an incentive-based community service alternative. It allows young men from neighborhoods considered "violence hot spots" to work off their court costs, fees and fines in exchange for working on their resumes, filling out job applications, preparing for interviews, obtaining a driver's license, getting a GED, and attending substance abuse and trauma counseling.
As participants work off their court fees, their participation and attendance are used to secure in-hand transitional employment opportunities from CORI-friendly employers that we have identified in the community. After six months of transitional employment, participants parlay their new work experience and employer recommendations into career-oriented job training programs, union apprenticeships, community colleges, etc. Although there is still a lot of data to collect and study, early indications are that courts costs, fees, and fines are a powerful incentive for ex-offenders to become employable.
Presently, 97 percent of inmates are released into the community and more than half are rearrested or returned to prison within three years. A key reason this costly, community-eroding cycle of recidivism continues is because the financial and record-keeping practices of the court system leave ex-offenders that want to work and support their families in worse shape than when they started: they are deeper in debt, more unemployable, and have fewer, if any, legitimate alternatives to underground employment.
A modern approach to public safety, in addition to prosecuting and incarcerating offenders, should follow Roxbury Court's lead in identifying counter-productive structural practices and turn them into strategic incentives that allow ex-offenders to get past their criminal records and find employment. Our system's investigations, arrests, prosecutions, and incarcerations are all in vain if ex-offenders who complete their sentences are left with no realistic opportunities to turn their lives around.