The criminologist has no clothes

How do we know Kerry Healey is a criminal-justice expert? Because she says so.
March 8, 2006 7:16:39 PM

PADDING HER RESUME?: Has Healey's public safety agenda served the Commonwealth?As she sets her sights on promotion, Kerry Healey has resurrected and even expanded her grandiose claims to criminal-justice expertise originally made during her 2002 campaign for lieutenant governor. Healey’s campaign Web site says that she “enjoyed a distinguished career as a law and public safety consultant.” In a press release issued this week, she claims to be a “criminologist and former consultant to the US Department of Justice in the 1990s” who “extensively researched domestic and gang-related violence.” In her campaign-announcement speech last month she said, “I worked for the US Department of Justice researching crime.” The state’s official Web site also says that she has authored four books on criminal justice.

Those “books” are actually co-authored white papers of secondary research (pulling together previous work), written during her roughly 10-year stint as a part-time consultant for Cambridge-based Abt Associates, mostly under an Abt contract with a branch of the Justice Department. She was never a DoJ employee or consultant. She has no education or experience that qualifies her as a criminologist. And by no definition can her career be called distinguished — her reports are seldom cited, and she was never invited as a speaker or panelist in the field prior to becoming lieutenant governor. Even Abt executives have offered little praise for Healey.

Padding a résumé is not a disqualifying sin in politics. What matters is whether Healey, handed control of crime issues by a thoroughly disinterested governor, parlayed her self-proclaimed expertise into a public-safety agenda that has served the Commonwealth.

The results are mixed, at best. While she has implemented a few changes to the state’s badly broken criminal-justice system, she has mostly wasted her efforts scoring easy political points and fighting unnecessary battles. Meanwhile, on her watch, violent crime has swamped cities from Fall River to Springfield. No wonder she still talks about her work in the 1990s, and has little to say about what she’s done over the past three years.

While Rome Burns
In most of the state’s largest cities — Boston, Springfield, Brockton, New Bedford, Fall River, Lowell, Lynn, Quincy — violent-crime rates are higher than before Romney and Healey took office. In some cases, much higher. Springfield recently climbed to number 25 on an annual ranking of the most dangerous cities in America, and has had 50 homicides in the past three years, up from 30 in the previous three. Last year, Boston had its highest homicide tally in a decade. In Fall River, violent crime has doubled in five years.

Statewide, the number of gunshot-assault victims treated in hospital emergency rooms jumped 22 percent just last year, according to state figures, and are up a stunning 80 percent from 2000.

Healey was supposed to have done something about this. “Urban crime strategies” was one of the five topics she tackled in her first major undertaking as lieutenant governor, the Commission on Criminal Justice Innovation. But in the commission’s report, released in April 2004, this was the weakest section, as reported by the Phoenix at the time, filled with vague platitudes and material copied out of dated NIJ materials. (See “Crime Prevention,” April 9, 2004.)

Healey has pushed forward on some of her commission’s recommendations, including a significant but unsexy technology project to allow agencies to share criminal information. But DAs’ budgets have declined throughout Romney’s tenure, and there are 30 fewer prosecutors working in those offices today than in 2001. Police forces across the state have been slashed because of cuts in local aid. So have service programs that help prevent crime, like summer jobs, community programming, and substance-abuse treatment.

Healey has also taken a pass on wrongful convictions, declining to support legislation or other efforts aimed at improving the quality of criminal investigations. And reform of the Department of Correction — critical to Healey’s professed desire to improve ex-felons’ readiness to succeed upon release — has stalled so badly that Scott Harshbarger resigned from a state commission on correctional reform several months ago in protest, he told the Phoenix, of the administration’s laxness.

Even Healey’s strongest defenders find little to say when asked for concrete examples of how she has helped reduce crime. “Kerry Healey has been a great partner on criminal-justice issues with the DAs,” says Bill Meade, legal counsel for the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association. “It’s hard to quantify it.”

Politics Versus Progress
To some degree, Healey may have been stymied by the political whims of her boss. Absentee governor Mitt Romney cares little about criminal-justice issues — amazingly, he has never met with the state’s district attorneys — but he surely doesn’t want his office, and his presidential plans, sullied by anything that could be painted as soft on crime.

That could explain Healey’s silence on issues like CORI reform and early-release programs, as well as her avid support of headline-driven legislation, such as Romney’s death-penalty bill, and the “Ally Zapp Law” and “Melanie’s Law,” which crack down on sex offenders and drunk drivers, respectively. This week, Healey testified on a new pet project of hers, stiffening penalties for crystal-methamphetamine traffickers.

Those are easy stands to take politically, but they aren’t what law-enforcement officials need help with. “Gangs, guns, and heroin — I would shift my focus to those things,” says Bristol County district attorney Paul Walsh Jr.

The one solution Healey has espoused for urban crime — a cure-all, to hear her tell it lately — is the topic du jour of fighting witness intimidation. Healey could have been ahead of the curve on this: she co-authored a white paper (one of her four “books”) on preventing witness intimidation. Its recommendations relied almost entirely on executive, not legislative, action. Instead, she is spearheading a bill to expand the state’s witness-protection efforts.

Few in law enforcement, meanwhile, see the legislation as more than a token measure. A police captain in one hard-hit South Shore town says that while witness intimidation is a huge problem for him, he expects Healey’s bill to do little to change the situation.


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