MA Incarceration Trends Have People Urging “Jobs Not Jails”
BOSTON - Massachusetts incarcerates a higher portion of its population than nearly every country in the world. In fact, according to statistics from the International Centre for Prison Studies and US incarceration data, only a handful of countries with more than half a million people have higher incarceration rates: Thailand, Panama, Azerbaijan, El Salvador, the Russian Federation, Rwanda and Cuba.
The Massachusetts incarceration rate is 2.6 times the world average. Those looking for good news in the data point to the rest of the United States. Massachusetts is near the bottom when it comes to incarceration rates nationwide. But, increasingly, people here don’t think that’s good enough.
Jobs Not Jails is a coalition of more than 100 organizations finding common ground on the need to reduce the prison population and increase job opportunities for Massachusetts residents. Several organizations first came together in 2010 in the push for CORI reform, which took effect in 2012. The Criminal Offender Record Information law outlines how such information can be released to employers, landlords and volunteer organizations, among other entities. Some of the same organizations united to work for the repeal of mandatory minimum drug sentences and fight against the three-strikes bill, which eventually passed, ensuring certain violent offenders have no chance at parole.
Steve O’Neill is the executive director for interstate organizing at EPOCA, Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement. He said the Jobs Not Jails movement, which is still taking shape now, was a result of lessons learned during the previous three fights.
“There were a lot of folks who organically organized on their own to fight ,” O’Neill said. “What if we could pull all these folks together and not just react to something but really define what we want?”
For years groups have fought for or against specific proposals. Now, Jobs Not Jails leaders are working to create an omnibus bill that would address a range of issues across the jobs and jails continuum and would require only one vote from the legislature.
O’Neill said the “massive” growth in the prison population in the last 30 years has prompted aggressive organizing by groups like EPOCA.
“To unravel that … and particularly to address the jobs problem, which we see as equally important, it was going to take a lot more than the typical step-by-step chipping away one law at a time kind of thing,” O’Neill said. “We realized we really needed to build a movement.”
Last spring 46,000 people signed petitions to divert prison spending toward job creation. Governor Deval Patrick’s administration has estimated the state will need to spend $2 billion over the next 10 years to construct enough prison units to meet its needs, based on the current sentencing and incarceration laws. Jobs Not Jails has latched onto that $2 billion estimate — as well as the $150 million annual cost of keeping people in those units — and pledged to find a better use for the money.
Over the last few months, Jobs Not Jails steering committee members have debriefed about their prior successes and failures, looked to other states like California for inspiration and sought input on how to move forward as an organized, umbrella movement, bringing together stakeholders who have their own key issues and time commitments.