Few answers on corrections spending
Baker, sheriffs offer muted explanations for findings
GOV. CHARLIE BAKER and the state’s sheriffs offered no clear explanation this week for why corrections funding is going up as inmate populations are declining.
The puzzling spending pattern was detailed in a study released on Monday by MassINC, the nonpartisan public policy research organization that publishes CommonWealth. The report found that spending on corrections, especially in the county systems overseen by the state’s 14 elected sheriffs, increased steadily over a six-year period earlier this decade, despite declining incarceration levels.
The report, authored by MassINC research director Ben Forman and Michael Widmer, the former president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, found that corrections spending increased in the state by 18 percent from 2011 to 2016, a period during which the inmate population declined by 12 percent.
Spending in the state Department of Correction went up by 12 percent, from $532 million to $594 million. Spending by the county sheriffs’ departments, which operate county houses of correction, went up 24 percent, from $500 million to $619 million.
Asked about the report on Monday afternoon, Gov. Charlie Baker said he hadn’t yet seen it. “I’d be perfectly happy to look at it and comment on it after I have a chance to read it.” Baker said.
On Tuesday, Felix Browne, spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety, released a statement on the report. “The administration and Department of Correction have been pleased to pursue reforms to reduce costs in the system, while also providing meaningful reentry and skills programming to inmates preparing to re-enter society and their communities,” Browne said.
The statement did not address the report’s findings on spending in the sheriffs’ departments, which are also funded by the state. Baker’s office did not respond to a follow-up email asking about spending by the sheriffs.
Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who was part of a panel discussion on Monday where the research was presented, offered a colorful characterization of his reaction.
“I now know what it feels like to be a human piñata,” Tompkins said at the start of the panel conversation, which followed a presentation of the research findings.
Tompkins later provided a statement as president of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association.
“While I appreciate MassINC’s effort to understand spending trends in the Massachusetts corrections system, this one-dimensional report fixates on operational costs, while discounting factors that directly correlate with the resources required to address the immense and multifaceted needs of the offender population housed in county jails and houses of correction,” it said.
The report did, in fact, look at spending on programs aimed at reducing recidivism. It said spending on all program services, which includes reentry, counseling, and education, remained constant at about 2 percent of total spending by sheriffs, while declining in the state prison system as a percentage of total expenditures from 3 percent to 2.7 percent.
For education spending alone, the report found that just 1 percent of payroll spending by sheriffs and 1.3 percent of Department of Correction spending went for education staff.
Senate President Stan Rosenberg did not address the specific findings of the report, but said in a statement that corrections spending should be focused on ways to reduce the cycle of incarceration that sees many of those released from prisons return there.
“The Senate is focused on passing comprehensive criminal justice reform, including measures to spend our dollars more wisely to reduce recidivism and overall incarceration rates,” he said. “This is something voters expect and want elected officials to do.”
Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi released a statement taking issue with the report. Cocchi said he has closed some “housing pods” as a result of a reduction in inmate population and redeployed staff members toward work on prisoner reentry.
Hampden County has long been known for its prisoner rehabilitation programs. Appendices to the research report, posted online following its release, do show larger increases in Hampden County in spending on education and programs for inmates than for correctional officers over the study’s six-year period.
Spending on education in Hampden County increased by 33 percent and on all program services by 34 percent. Spending on corrections officer staffing increased by 19 percent.
Other counties, however, showed no increase or even a decrease in spending on education and other inmate programs.
“The report raised some important questions and points to some significantly divergent trends,” said Sen. Will Brownsberger, cochairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, referring to the spending increases and decreasing prisoner counts. But he said he wanted to see more information before reaching any conclusions.
Norfolk County Sheriff Michael Bellotti said there has long been “a bit of frustration” among the state’s sheriffs, the Legislature, and the executive branch over spending issues.
“Create a budget process that makes it more transparent,” he said. He suggested creating three distinct line items in sheriffs’ budgets, one for security costs, one for inmate programs, and one for external programs, such as youth camps and programs for senior citizens.“But we do need to do more,” Bellotti said of the call for the criminal justice system to redouble efforts to tackle recidivism. “We need to find ways to shift those dollars into the programs that are successful for people who lack education, for vocational skills, or for dealing with all those issues that are criminogenic factors that lead to higher recidivism rates.”
The Senate Ways and Means Committee budget released earlier this week includes language that would require sheriffs to file reports detailing their spending patterns, including reporting the number of corrections officers and supervisors. It would also require the departments to identifying their “core responsibilities, essential services and best practices” and compare their expenditures with those of other departments.