Commission probes uneven sheriffs’ spending
Mulls consolidating jail housing units
THE BRISTOL COUNTY sheriff’s department spends around $50,000 per year for each inmate it incarcerates, and around $1,000 per inmate on programming. The Barnstable County sheriff spends twice that – an average of $100,000 per year per inmate – and around $6,000 per inmate on programs. Essex County has less than half a full-time staff position employed per inmate, while Berkshire County employs more than one staff person for every inmate.
A special commission formed to examine correctional funding is putting in stark term what some critics have long noted: that there is no uniformity in how much money each sheriff’s department gets from the Legislature and spends on incarceration.
At the same time, the commission’s report, set to be released next week, will also lay bare the challenges facing anyone hoping to reform the system. The commission struggled to even understand the extent of the funding unevenness, since the sheriffs do not use standardized definitions, making it nearly impossible to compare one office to another. The report will also make clear that each facility has unique needs so establishing a funding formula based solely on inmate population won’t work.
A major recommendation stemming from the commission’s work is the need for better data collection. Commission co-chairman Michael Day, a Democratic state representative from Stoneham, said if there is no standardization, “We have 15 different definitions of what constitutes programming, what constitutes mental illness, and what we do with that information?”
The legislatively created commission, after two years of work, was scheduled to release draft recommendations after a virtual public meeting Monday. But commissioners only received the draft on Friday and several sheriffs, state agency representatives, and other commissioners said they wanted more time to review it before releasing it publicly. In a 9-7 vote, commissioners agreed to discuss an overview of the report at the meeting, then continue discussions Wednesday, after which they will release the draft report. The seven dissenters wanted to delay the public discussion altogether.
According to the public presentation by commission co-chair Sen. William Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat, the report will address two major, interrelated areas: costs and programming.
On cost, the report notes that over the past decade, declines in the prison population did not correspond to declines in spending, for several possible reasons. The report notes that even if a housing unit has fewer people, it still needs to be staffed. More programming, which has become a higher priority in the past decade, requires more staff. Increased out-of-cell time and other changes mandated by the state’s criminal justice reform law also require more staff. The state has tried to divert lower-level offenders out of prison, which means inmates who are incarcerated have more serious offenses and need more supervision.
“The operation has changed,” said commissioner Gerard Horgan, a former Norfolk County jail superintendent.
Brownsberger said one thing he took from the commission’s work is the only way to lower costs is by closing housing units. Today, data show most county jails are operating significantly below their capacity. But, he said, addressing consolidation is a “third rail” for many people.
Consolidation likely means combining the state prison and county jail populations in some way. A slide Brownsberger prepared said this could involve combining women’s facilities or mental health units across the state Department of Correction and county jails. It could mean allowing county jails to house inmates with sentences longer than 2½ years. Some regional facilities could replace county facilities.
But several commissioners spoke out against any suggestion of consolidation. “Sometimes when we consolidate it sounds better on paper, but then we see it over years in practice, it ends up being not nearly as efficient as we hoped,” said Commissioner Timothy Whelan, a Republican state representative and retired state police officer from Brewster, who is running for sheriff in Barnstable County.
There are explanations for the disparities, such as large facilities may be able to adopt more economies of scale. But the report found that the disparities – whether in per inmate costs, staffing levels, or salaries – could not be fully explained by jail size or other factors.
However, Brownsberger said there may not be a simple way to standardize the sheriffs’ budgets, because each facility is so different. “There’s no way to drive it by formula,” he said. “You have to get into the weeds.”
For example, the report says that fragmented housing units with poor sight lines require more officers. It says inmates with mental health needs require more supervision, while more programming means officers are needed to escort prisoners to various services.
The data is also imperfect. For example, staffing counts do not take into consideration the fact that some counties hire their own health care and food service staff, while others contract these services out.
The report recommends analyzing each facility to determine its unique staffing needs, although it acknowledges that would take years.
The commission was also charged with analyzing spending on programming, including mental health and substance use treatment, and determining an appropriate level. However, the commission concluded that it could not evaluate “appropriate” levels of spending. A big part of the problem was there was no consistent data across sheriffs’ agencies. “These inconsistencies make a complicated system opaque and stubbornly resistant to substantive analysis,” the draft report says, according to Brownsberger’s presentation.
Essex County classified fewer than 20 percent of inmates has having substance use disorder, compared to more than 80 percent in Franklin County. In Plymouth County, fewer than 20 percent of inmates self-reporting having serious mental illness, compared to more than 90 percent in Franklin County. Dukes County reported having 138 statutorily required programs, while Barnstable County had zero, Plymouth County had one, and Essex County two.
“Those variations can’t be real at that level,” Brownsberger said. “Obviously, they’re using different definitions.”
The commissioners were able to compare overall program spending levels, which ranged from $1,097 per inmate in Bristol County to $7,227 per inmate in Berkshire County in 2019.The commission is considering recommending creation of a new agency to oversee inmate programming or set standards for programming – either an independent agency or one within state government. But Brownsberger said that recommendation will be discussed more at Wednesday’s meeting, and several commissioners made clear that they did not want to see more state oversight of programs run by county sheriffs.