The Past, Present, and Future of Criminal Justice Reform in New England – Corey Wise

AMST 335

Professor Gieseking

Corey Wise

The Past, Present, and Future of Criminal Justice Reform in New England

Understanding what America is requires retrospective understanding of its past, acknowledgement of its present, and honest appraisal of its future.  Although the past may not always be something of which we are proud, there is value in learning from both the mistakes and the successes of all of our ancestors.  Making the United States into a place that we all want to live in requires a critical look at our past and present as a means to shape a better and more-inclusive future.  In this paper, the debate and progress on criminal justice reform will be described as it applies to the geographical imagination of the New England Village, with a particular focus on how these reforms would be represented in 2038.  Where applicable, the Town of Wayland, Massachusetts, will be highlighted as a case study for specific examples.

It is important to understand the sobering and depressing statistics around America’s failing criminal justice system when assessing criminal justice reform.  In the book Reinventing American Criminal Justice, Michael Tonry’s chapter, “Making American Sentencing Just, Humane, and Effective,” brings to light many of the startling inequalities demonstrated in the justice system.  Over the past 30 years, imprisonment in America rose from 160 people per 100,000 population, to a staggering 753 per 100,000.[1]  This number is not only more than double what it was in the 70s and 80s, but it also is 8 times greater than the European average.  Michael Tonry writes, “The implications of the literatures on deterrence and incapacitation are straightforward:  fewer convicted offenders should be sent to prison and for shorter times.  There are no evidence-based grounds for believing that the use of prison sentences generally and lengthy ones in particular has significant crime-preventive effects.  There is good evidence that imprisonment fails to reduce later offending and may increase it.”[2]  This shows that the unjust imprisonment rates don’t even serve the purpose of rehabilitation or deterrence, but in reality destroy lives that can lead to more crime with repeat offenders.  Tonry contends that the “short-term goal should be to reduce the national imprisonment rate by half by 2020, essentially to turn the clock back to where things stood in the mid-1980s.  The longer-term goal should be to regain by 2030 an imprisonment rate of 160 per 100,000.”[3]  The decrease is needed, as never before has this alarmingly high rate of imprisonment been the American standard.  This current rate isn’t really an acceptable standard in any country.

Justice and fairness have always been a concern in American history.  The New England Village was established with strong roots in communal living and shared resources, as seen in the creation of town commons and the town meeting form of representational government.[4]  The New England Village, at its idealistic best, was the original proponent of living your best life through community engagement, as exemplified by sharing the experiences of safety, security, resources, and infrastructure with fellow villagers.  It is important to note that prime land was (and still is) carved out to share communally and not just for individual profit.[5]  While the Puritan New England Village was quite intolerant and punitive in nature, with punishments often embracing public humiliation, physical harm, and banishment, the New England Village evolved into a more tolerant and compassionate geographical imagination as the centuries unfolded.  The Transcendentalism movement of the mid-1800s helped soften the inflexibility of the earliest New England Village settlements through its philosophical belief in the power of the individual, inherent divinity of all things, and moral responsibility of man to do the right thing.  Henry David Thoreau reiterated this idea in his book Walden, by saying, “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”[6]

The town where I grew up, Wayland, Massachusetts, exhibits the traits of the New England Village in multiple ways.  In its agrarian past, Wayland residents shared communal resources such as Cow Common, the town green where First Parish and the major town intersections are located, and the militia training field on Training Field Road[7].  More recently, as Wayland became more of a suburb of Boston as opposed to a self-contained New England Village, its citizens quickly prioritized the preservation of conservation land in balance with development.  Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, his inspiration for Transcendentalism, is an integral part of the fabric of Wayland’s schools and community, epitomized by the annual 6th grade Wayland Middle School bike trip to Walden Pond.  This is a rite of passage in which most of Wayland (students, teachers, parents, police and fire departments, neighbors along the route, etc.) gets involved every fall.

The modern New England Village has felt the full effect of suburbanization and evolution of technology and transportation.  The New England Village has collided with modern transportation and suburbanization, with many villages becoming de facto bedroom suburbs of larger metropolitan cities such as New York City, Boston, etc.  There is, however, a continued commitment to the town meeting form of representational government and preservation of public lands for the use and enjoyment of all.  The current New England Villages within Massachusetts have met the challenges of the failing criminal justice system by recently passing landmark bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation.  On April 13, 2018, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed this sweeping legislation into law.[8]  S2371 (An Act Relative to Criminal Justice Reform) and H4012 (An Act Implementing the Joint Recommendations of the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Review) became Chapters 69 and 72, respectively, of the Acts of 2018, making them laws of the Commonwealth.[9]  The drive behind these reforms is to grant the ability to turn one’s life around after imprisonment more freely and easily.  These pieces of legislation were compromise bills that combined aspects of competing House and Senate versions from last year.

Some of the key points of this criminal justice reform legislation, as outlined by Massachusetts State Senator William Brownsberger, Senate Chair of the Judiciary Committee were as follows:  1) decriminalize minor offenses, 2) divert minor offenses away from prosecution/incarceration, 3) reform bail to reduce unnecessary incarceration, 4) repeal/limit mandatory minimums for non-opiate, non-weight retail drug offenses, 5) strengthen minimum mandatories for opioid trafficking, 6) strengthen protections for public safety, 7) reduce solitary confinement, 8) generally improve prison conditions, 9) release prisoners who are permanently incapacitated and pose no safety risk, 10) make it easier for people to get back on their feet, 11) take better care of juveniles and young adults, 12) improve transparency of the criminal justice system, 13) better protect women in the criminal justice system, and lastly, 14) reduce and remedy errors of justice[10].    The present New England Village has taken the bull by its horns and set the benchmark from which to further refine much-needed criminal justice reforms.  Wayland’s State Legislators, State Senator Richard Ross (R) and State Representative Alice Hanlon Peisch (D), have wholeheartedly endorsed these criminal justice reforms from their legislative inception in a bipartisan and collaborative manner.

Criminal justice reform will be more evolved and progressive by 2038 in the New England Village.  The criminal justice reform laws were always viewed as a work-in-progress, an initial blueprint upon which to change the criminal justice system from merely punitive into one which, in the words of MA State Senator William Brownsberger, “is about lifting people up instead of locking people up.  And it is about cutting the chains that hold people down when they are trying to get back on their feet.  And it is about better protecting the public from drugs and violence.”[11]  Twenty years from now, the diversion programs for veterans, the mentally ill, and addicted, that take the place of incarceration, will be robust and be more tailored to address the specific needs of these individuals.  There will be a greater understanding and acceptance of what drives certain individuals to commit crimes in the first place, and how to best meet their needs as well as the needs of their victims.  By 2038, there will hopefully be a reduction in prison populations as these diversion programs become the preferred method of treatment.  Sentencing will, once again, be more in the hands of the local judges, who will no longer be bound by the mandatory minimums for minor offenses and non-opiate drug offenses.  There will ideally be an equitable distribution of diversion programs throughout the Commonwealth, so that there is a shared commitment to helping veterans, the mentally ill, and addicted.  There will likely be legislation that mandates this equitable distribution of diversion programs across all towns of the Commonwealth of MA, similar to Chapter 40B legislation, the Affordable Housing Zoning Law.  Chapter 40B was enacted with the goal of producing more affordable housing throughout Massachusetts, as well as making housing more accessible.  40B specifies that the “standard is for communities to provide a minimum of 10% of their housing inventory as affordable.”[12]  Massachusetts always seems to be at the forefront of this type of progressive legislation, in keeping with its reputation as a liberal bastion.

In twenty years, transition programs to assist recently-freed inmates (as well as those who have successfully completed diversion programs) successfully reintegrate into society will have been developed and modified to meet best practices.  There will be additional legislation that further decriminalizes marijuana by 2038, and the majority of opiate-addicted individuals who commit crimes will be offered rehabilitation treatment in lieu of jail time.  Solitary confinement will no longer be an acceptable form of discipline in prison.  Other states will enact similar legislation in response to the success exhibited in Massachusetts.  Hopefully, the federal government will also enact similar criminal justice reform laws.  As a continued positive development coming out of the initial criminal justice reforms of the 2010s, legislation that modifies and curtails felony disenfranchisement will be passed at the state levels, and ideally also at the federal level.

Both the past and present New England Village share many common traits with regards to criminal justice.  Both are built on representational government and fairness, a building block of almost all successful towns and villages.  Another similarity is deep roots in the expectation of  individual contributions to the collective betterment of the whole group.  A sense of community is important, and settlements can only succeed when everyone works together.  This concept lies parallel to a lifestyle of communal living and shared resources.  In more modern times, the progressive, liberal thinking embraced in the New England Village is important in creating a connected and well-guided town and state.

Criminal justice reform will play an even bigger role in the collective consciousness of 2038, arguably more than it has in both early America and the present day.  As mentioned previously, the 2038 New England Village will continue pushing the envelope on criminal justice reform, using current literature and experience to improve reforms in a way that is fair and just to all.  The 2038 New England Village will look to all of its past collective heritage in informing its future.  Based on its roots, the 2038 New England Village will continue its progressive mindset and will hopefully have achieved some success with respect to reducing the prison population, developing state-of-the-art diversion programs as a viable alternative to incarceration, and creating transition programs that allow individuals who have been in the criminal justice system to seamlessly integrate back into society.  The Town of Wayland, Massachusetts, will maintain its position as a quintessential New England Village, and will be at the forefront of supporting continued criminal justice reforms, in addition to other progressive initiatives.  An area that could be a source of potential pushback would likely come from any future legislation mandating a set percentage of diversion programs within each town in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  While progressive in most state initiatives, town leaders and citizens groups have shown the strongest opposition over the years to proposed 40B developments, which often have to be scaled down or scrapped due to political and legal pressure, in a classic “NIMBY” (“Not In My Back Yard”) mentality.

A very important thing to remember is that American democracy needs to be promoted in any criminal justice reforms.  The 2038 New England Village, in its attempt to advance criminal justice reform, will push an agenda that promotes American democracy.  One of the many travesties of the previous decades of the criminal justice system is that the system has unfairly targeted certain minorities, namely blacks and Hispanics.  Another travesty of the 2017 criminal justice system is that it has a one-size-fits-all approach for all offenses, namely jail time, and does nothing to address the very real roles that struggles such as PTSD, mental illness, and addiction play in the committing of a vast majority of crimes.  An American democracy functions best when it allows everyone to live one’s best life.  Addressing and implementing criminal justice reforms now and in the future goes a long way towards meeting the most ideal definition of democracy.  Wayland has been at the forefront of access and inclusion throughout its history, particularly in the post-Puritan era.  Some examples of this includes the Wayland Town Library, which is the 2nd free library in the nation, and Wayland High School, which started providing gender-neutral bathrooms 2 years ago.[13]

There is plenty of evidence from the American Studies 335 course literature to support the role of the New England Village with respect to criminal justice reform issues in 2038.  A review of the literature covered provides a few examples of how the New England Village geographical imagination lent support to criminal justice reform issues in the past, present, and future.  In the past, the pastoral ideal was essentially codified in the New England Village geographical imagination, and was “embodied in various utopian schemes for making America the site of a new beginning for Western society.  In both forms—one literary and the other in essence political—the ideal has figured in the American view of life.”[14]  In this pastoral ideal, there is always the sense that we can and should do right by our fellow man, with a focus on seeing the good versus bad in a person, no matter how flawed someone is.  There is an inherent belief that a flawed person still has some redeemable qualities.

The modern-day tension of respecting and learning from the past while accommodating the needs and values of today is perfectly summarized by J.B. Jackson when he states, “Almost by definition an inhabited landscape is the product of incessant adaptation and conflict:  adaptation to what is often a new and bewildering natural environment, conflict between groups of people with very dissimilar views as to how to make that adaptation.  The political landscape, artificial though it may be, is the realization of an archetype, of a coherent design inspired by philosophy or religion, and it has a distinct purpose in view.”[15]  New England Villages, including Wayland, have had to balance past practices, many of which have been proven ineffective over time, with new research on criminal justice, in order to develop the criminal justice reform legislation of 2018.

The challenge for New England Villages like Wayland going forward is to continue to evolve while remaining inclusive and accepting of conflicting viewpoints.  In the year 2038, an even greater variety of beliefs, constituents, and conflicts will need to be incorporated into the New England Village.  In reading about polarization, one author said, “What is emerging nonetheless counts as a significant change.  With a dramatic increase in options and a greater power to customize comes a corresponding increase in the range of actual choices, and those choices are likely, in many cases, to match demographic characteristics, preexisting political convictions, or both.”[16]  The same article also goes on to say, “If diverse groups are seeing and hearing quite different points of view, or focusing on quite different topics, mutual understanding might be difficult, and it might be increasingly hard for people to solve problems that society faces together.”[17]  One of the greatest future challenges for the New England Village, and even for democracy, is to remain open and receptive to all its citizens, and not devolve into myopic, one-sided visions of our shared community.  Even with seemingly non-harmonious opposing views, it is critical that our society work together in the future, in order to produce the best possible outcomes for agendas such as the criminal justice system.

In 2038, the landmark legislation of Massachusetts’s bipartisan criminal justice reforms will be 21 years old.  Hopefully, by then, other states and the federal government will have passed similar legislation.  The past, present, and future geographical imagination of the New England Village has played, and will continue to play, a key role in the migration of criminal justice reforms towards more rehabilitation and less incarceration.  As a nearly ideal representation of the New England Village, the Town of Wayland, Massachusetts, has played a vital and progressive role in leading and supporting the dialogue around criminal justice reform.  American democracy that is fair and just for all of its citizens will benefit from continued criminal justice reforms, allowing everyone to live a life well lived.


Brownsberger, Will. “Final Criminal Justice Package Released.” Will Brownberger – State Senator. March 23, 2018. Accessed May 06, 2018.


Brownsberger, Williams, Cynthia Stone Creem, Bruce Tarr, Claire Cronin, Ronald Mariano, and Sheila Harrington. “Bill S.2371.” The 190th General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Accessed May 06, 2018.


Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association. Fact Sheet on Chapter 40B The State’s Affordable Housing Zoning Law. PDF. Boston, October 2009.


Foster, David R., Brian Donahue, David Kittredge, Glenn Motzkin, Brian Hall, Billie Turner, and Elizabeth Chilton. New England’s Forest Landscape. PDF. Massachusetts, 2008.


Gieseking, Jen Jack, and William Mangold. The People, Place, and Space Reader. New York: Routledge, 2014.


Jackson, John Brinkerhoff. “A Pair of Ideal Landscapes.” In The People, Place, and Space Reader, edited by Jen Jack Gieseking and William Mangold, 259-62. Routledge, 2014.


Marx, Leo. Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2000.


Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Historic Landscape Preservation Initiative. Putting Historic Landscape Preservation on Solid Ground. PDF. Massachusetts.


McCall, Alison. “DAY TRIPPING: Cow Common Rich with History.” The Sudbury Town Crier. July 31, 2014. Accessed May 06, 2018.


Sunstein, Cass. #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Princeton University Press, 2017


Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854.


Tonry, Michael H., and Daniel Nagin. Reinventing American Criminal Justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.


Walker, Craig F. “Charlie Baker to Sign off on Sweeping Criminal Justice Bill.” The Boston Globe. April 13, 2018. Accessed May 06, 2018.


Writer, Susan L. WagnerStaff. “Two Wayland High Bathrooms to Be Gender-inclusive.” Wicked Local Wayland. June 02, 2016. Accessed May 06, 2018.


[1] Michael H. Tonry, and Daniel Nagin, Reinventing American Criminal Justice, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2017), p. 493.

[2] Tonry and Nagin, Reinventing American Criminal Justice, P.459

[3] Tonry and Nagin, Reinventing American Criminal Justice, p.460

[4] Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Historic Landscape Preservation Initiative, Putting Historic Landscape Preservation on Solid Ground, (Massachusetts).

[5] David R. Foster, Brian Donahue, David Kittredge, Glenn Motzkin, Brian Hall, Billie Turner, and Elizabeth Chilton, New England’s Forest Landscape, (Massachusetts, 2008).

[6] Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Life in the Woods, (Boston, Ticknor and Fields, 1854), p. 68.

[7] Alison McCall, DAY TRIPPING: Cow Common Rich with History, (The Sudbury Town Crier, 2014).

[8] Craig F. Walker, Charlie Baker to Sign off on Sweeping Criminal Justice Bill, (The Boston Globe, 2018).

[9] Williams Brownsberger, Cynthia Stone Creem, Bruce Tarr, Claire Cronin, Ronald Mariano, and Sheila Harrington, Bill S.2371, (The 190th General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 2018).

[10] Will Brownsberger, Final Criminal Justice Package Released, (Will Brownberger – State Senator, 2018)

[11] Brownsberger, Final Criminal Justice Package Released.

[12] Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, Fact Sheet on Chapter 40B The State’s Affordable Housing Zoning Law, (Boston, 2009).

[13] Susan L. Wagner, Two Wayland High Bathrooms to Be Gender-inclusive, (Wicked Local Wayland, 2016).

[14] Leo Marx, Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, (Oxford University Press, 2000).

[15] J.B. Jackson, A Pair of Ideal Landscapes. (In The People, Place, and Space Reader, Routledge, 2014).

[16] Cass Sunstein, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, (Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 66.

[17] Sunstein, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, p. 68.

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