Cordy: Bad old days a cautionary tale for justice reform

It is surely time to reexamine many of our state’s criminal justice policies — as the Senate has already done and the House is doing this week as it debates criminal justice reform.

But I write only to caution about the inevitable pendulum that, perhaps as a rule of nature and gravity, always tends to swing too far. In that respect, missing in much of the debate is a discussion not just of the cost of the current laws (which admittedly have been substantial in human terms) but also the benefits — or rather the cost to the public of an environment less secure from crime in their streets and their neighborhoods.

Perhaps because I began practicing law more than four decades ago (first as a public defender, later as a prosecutor) I have observed the ebb and flow of criminal justice reform in our state through a somewhat different lens than some of the leaders in the current campaign for change.

I recall, for example, the extraordinary surge of crime here in the 1970s and 1980s. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for Massachusetts in 1960, the number of crimes reported that year was 63,000. But by 1990, with a population of about 6 million people our state was experiencing 319,000 crimes annually, or about 5,300 crimes per 100,000 people. That’s more than 1 in 20 persons victimized by crime each year. Indeed in that year there were 243 murders, 13,062 robberies, 67,000 burglaries and 29,000 aggravated assaults.

It was no wonder that when Gov. William Weld began his first term in office in 1991, “criminal justice reform” was high on his agenda. But those reforms were very different from what is being considered today.

That agenda led to bail reform — including the enactment of a statute permitting the holding of particularly dangerous individuals without bail — truth-in-sentencing reforms (eliminating the abuse of statutory good time and incredibly early parole eligibility), domestic violence reform and juvenile justice reform (establishing a youthful offender category for serious offenses, committed by certain juveniles, and adult sentencing for crimes such as murder). Mandatory minimums were also added or increased for several crimes.

To what end? Well the numbers tell some of the story. Ten years later, in 2000, the number of annual reported crimes in Massachusetts had dropped to 192,000, and the crime rate per 100,000 persons had dropped to 3,026. Murders were down about 50 percent to 125, robberies down 55 percent to…

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