The case for reforming criminal sentencing in Massachusetts has been evident for years. Mandatory minimum sentences handcuff judges, denying them the flexibility they need to ensure justice and protect public safety in light of the specific case at hand. They pack the prisons with people who come out more dangerous than they went in. And they deny courts and prosecutors the most effective tools for keeping released prisoners from offending again.

The case for reforming criminal sentencing in Massachusetts has been evident for years. Mandatory minimum sentences handcuff judges, denying them the flexibility they need to ensure justice and protect public safety in light of the specific case at hand. They pack the prisons with people who come out more dangerous than they went in. And they deny courts and prosecutors the most effective tools for keeping released prisoners from offending again.

Those serving mandatory minimum sentences, most of them drug offenders, aren't eligible for work release programs, "good conduct" credits or parole. As a result, nearly a thousand inmates a year are released back into the community with none of the post-release supervision proven to keep ex-offenders from committing crimes again.

The state's Criminal Offender Record Information system suffers from similar unintended consequences. Designed to protect the innocent by giving prospective employers access to criminal records, CORI too often denies those who have served their sentences the jobs they need to keep away from crime.

But the case for reforming sentencing and CORI has been lost on the risk-averse state Legislature. Mandatory minimums aren't as politically popular as they were 20 years ago, but convicted criminals don't vote, and those who like policies that look "tough on crime" do - even if those policies don't actually work.

Gov. Deval Patrick is challenging legislators to choose effective crime-control strategies over outdated political assumptions. Patrick is introducing bills to modify mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, allowing them to apply for parole after serving two-thirds of their sentences and making post-release supervision mandatory. Drug offenders serving mandatory minimums would be eligible for work release and community corrections programs.

Patrick calls for CORI reforms that would tighten administration and give offenders the opportunity to contest CORI decisions and respond to those reviewing their records.

These reforms are a good first step, but only that. The state should be creating options for drug treatment instead of incarceration for some drug offenders. Community corrections and post-release supervision should be expanded, as should drug treatment programs in the prisons.

In the past, the Legislature has too often ignored the governor's reform initiatives. His response, in this and other areas, has been to offer more modest reforms, which the Legislature dilutes further, so that they hardly qualify as reforms at all.

In this case, the Legislature should make Patrick's reforms even stronger. If the research into preventing recidivism isn't convincing enough, lawmakers should consider the cost of "lock-em-up-and-forget-about-them" policies. It costs about $47,000 a year to house each inmate in Massachusetts' overcrowded prisons. With the state facing its worst ever fiscal crisis, taxpayers can no longer afford politically popular policies that do little to reduce crime.

The MetroWest Daily News