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Governor Patrick Stumbles on Prison Policy

A letter to the editor by Dollars & Sense co-editor Chris Sturr ran in today’s Boston Globe, criticizing Deval Patrick’s regressive policy to charge people convicted of crimes a fee as a way to raise money to pay for more police:

THE NEW GOVERNOR’S proposal is a shameful way for him to start out his term. This may play well to the law-and-order crowd that brought us the current prison crisis, but it targets a population that is largely indigent and whose families would bear the burden, as opponents pointed out in your article.

Eliot Spitzer, New York’s new governor, started his term in a much more promising way: by ending the contracts allowing phone companies to charge prisoners and their families exorbitant fees for collect calls. While the contracts brought in $16 million for the state in 2005 alone, Spitzer agreed with activists that the practice was exploitative. It inhibited contact between prisoners and their families — contact that enhances public safety by improving a prisoners’ chances of reintegrating once they get out. It also amounted to charging low-income communities for their own relatives’ incarceration.

Meanwhile, Patrick starts his term with more of the same punitive and failing criminal justice policies. What is he thinking? We need progressive solutions to Massachusetts’ prison crisis.

The writer is the co-editor of Dollars & Sense magazine.

To see the article Chris co-wrote with D&S collective member Liv Gold on the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice, click here; for an account of the recent activist victory for prisoners in New York, click here.

See also the orignal Globe article on Patrick’s proposal, and an excellent critique of the proposal by Globe columnist Eileen McNamara.

Below are the other three letters the Globe ran on the issue–the two other “anti” letters are excellent; the one “pro” letter (the middle one) is pretty mindless (“creative thinking”? puh-leeze!).

Thanks to Lois Ahrens of the Real Cost of Prisons Project for compiling these (and for all her excellent work!).

Making criminals pay

January 21, 2007

AFTER READING about how our new governor will raise $10 million by charging criminals, I have to protest (“Patrick proposes new fee on criminals,” Page A1, Jan. 14). That $10 million would be better spent on programs that would eliminate the need for hiring another 250 police officers.

Where does Governor Patrick think these criminals come from? They come mainly from situations where they see no hope, no compassion.

How about if we put that $10 million toward GED programs, mentor programs, after-school programs, or drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs? Or toward hiring more social workers so that they can better serve fragile families who are growing future criminals as we speak?

We can still fine the affluent who pass occasionally through our justice system, but let’s not further beat down those who pass through all too often.


GOV. PATRICK’S resourcefulness and ability to think clearly are evident in the idea of paying for more police with a “safety fee,” which would be assessed on every person convicted of a crime. Creative thinking has been missing from politics in Massachusetts for years, and is nonexistent at the national level.

Opponents of the plan are making unnecessary noise about an inconvenience equivalent to a slap on the wrists of criminals. Instead of seeking to take advantage of the good will of the people of Massachusetts, opponents should think again and be grateful for this governor. Patrick’s idea is just and sound. I look forward to more of the same from him.

North Andover

GOVERNOR PATRICK’S proposal to impose an additional fee on criminals is deeply disappointing and disturbing. His statement that “it’s fair to have people who are at the center of causing and committing crime to help us pay” reminds us how far our views have shifted to the right.

What does it say about our political attitudes if the newly elected Democratic governor of a traditionally liberal state looks to criminal defendants to help solve the state’s fiscal problems? Is that not like a new CEO suggesting that low-level employees who are laid off pay a fee to help solve the company’s fiscal problems?

With a landslide victory and a mandate for change, Governor Patrick could reshape our attitude about the cost of maintaining our way of life and who should bear it. He could remind us that those who benefit most from our way of life should bear most of the responsibility for its upkeep.

He could flatly state that it is not acceptable to blame the poor and the weak for what is wrong with our world. And he could challenge those of us who share the power to change our world to help him fix what is wrong with it. We elected Patrick to help us make this a better world.


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