"Without these reforms, we will need an additional 10,000 new beds," writes Public Safety Secretary Mary Elizabeth Heffernan, in a cover letter to the document. The capital investment required would more than double, to $1.3 billion, with an extra $100 million in annual operating costs, "and none of that would do anything to reduce recidivism or increase public safety."

"On the macro level," says Andrea Cabral, sheriff of Suffolk County, "it's an absolute fact that the way it works now is simply unsustainable from a financial perspective."

A lengthy appendix to the Master Plan lays out a range of laws and policies currently hampering effective public-safety efforts. They range from 200-year-old statutes governing the keeping of prisoners, to overlapping responsibilities that effectively prevent the use of local correctional facilities as part of a step-down transition for state prisoners.

Looked at together, one can see how all the pieces of the system are interrelated — and why they often don't make sense on their own. For example, there is little gain from ramping up re-entry programs while current statutes prevent the vast majority of prisoners from participating — but also a strong disincentive to paving the way to early release if those programs are not fully functional.

And yet, Patrick has not tried to present an omnibus bill with these proposals, and the Master Plan merely discusses them as a sort of ideal-world wish list. Observers inside and outside the administration say that there is simply no legislative interest to make it worth presenting.

Fear of attack

It's telling that the only media reaction to the nearly 400-page Master Plan was shock over plans for housing elderly prisoners — which some balked at as luxurious assisted-living coddling.

This is the type of outrage that cows lawmakers into the most "tough-on-crime" positions, regardless of the facts, according to reform advocates.

The legislature's Neanderthal mentality on the issue didn't stand out as much in the past. Republican administrations, from Bill Weld to Mitt Romney, were adamantly opposed to reform. So were many agency leaders, particularly at the Department of Correction.

That's no longer the case. In addition to Heffernan, Commissioner Luis Spencer of the Department of Correction is said to be serious about reform. Same with Ron Corbett, who has been charged with cleaning up the probation department. Many of the state's sheriffs are on the same page.

And some surveys have shown that the state's citizenry is far more reform-minded than its elected officials.

There is, however, one important group that stands firmly on the other side: the state's district attorneys.

They can still be counted on to lobby for any tough-sounding reaction to a public tragedy — Middlesex DA Gerry Leone helped write the three-strikes "Melissa's Bill" — and to vehemently oppose reforms designed to improve prisoners' transition to the community.

"The DAs think they run things," says one long-time advocate for criminal-justice reform. "They throw themselves at even the most basic, obvious, justice-promoting

The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association has fought hard against sentencing reform, among other proposals. Observers say that many legislators look to the DAs as policy experts. The DAs also provide lawmakers convenient cover to hide behind.

Lawmakers, according to reform advocates, live in fear of some horrible tragedy taking place in their district that can be traced to a vote they took. It is often the DAs who stoke that fear.

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Related: Missing in action, Tea Party Progressives?, Letters to the Boston editors, February 17, 2012, More more >
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