BOSTON (STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE) – People who had been convicted of prior offenses accounted for nearly three quarters of new convictions in Massachusetts in a single year, according to a data analysis presented Tuesday to a working group exploring opportunities for criminal justice reform.
The analysis, conducted by the Council of State Governments Justice Center as part of an ongoing review of the Massachusetts criminal justice system, found that recidivism drives most new conviction activity, with 79 percent of state prison sentences and 84 percent of sentences to county houses of correction given to people with previous convictions.
Seventy-three percent of people sentenced in Massachusetts had prior convictions in 2013, the most recent year for which data was available, said Justice Center project manager Katie Mosehauer.
Tuesday was the second public meeting of a bipartisan 25-member group working with Justice Center researchers towards the ultimate goal of developing criminal justice policy recommendations.
Gov. Charlie Baker, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants reached out to the Justice Center last August, requesting technical assistance in a data-driven effort to further reduce recidivism rates, prison population and taxpayer costs, while enhancing public safety.
Marc Pelka, the Justice Center’s deputy director of state initiatives, said one focus that has emerged so far for consideration is how to “slow the revolving door” of the criminal justice system.
“I think what this working group is going to be looking at is ways to reduce recidivism,” Pelka told the News Service. “How can we prevent people from penetrating deeper into the criminal justice system?”
More than 40 percent of people sentenced to a house of correction had served a prior county sentence within the previous three years, the Justice Center found.
People convicted for property offenses had the highest number of prior convictions, with an average of approximately eight, according to the data analysis. People convicted of drug offenses had an average of six prior convictions, and weapons offenders had an average of four prior convictions.
“Sentences to [houses of correction] tend to be for lower seriousness-level offenses, but the individuals are committing a lot of those offenses,” Mosehauer said. “There’s a small group of individuals who are generating a high volume of activity in the justice system, specifically within HOCs”
Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, one of the working group members, said the Justice Center’s recidivism data aligned with his own experiences.
“We see the same people over and over and over again, cycling through,” Koutoujian said. “They become part of that distant family, the second cousins that are always in trouble, and you get to know these guys. You see them throughout their whole career.”