Report: Inmate levels down but spending keeps rising

Report: Inmate levels down but spending keeps rising

At sheriff facilities, it’s one guard for every two prisoners

THE NUMBER OF INMATES in the state’s prisons and jails is going down, but the cost of operating those facilities is going up, largely because correctional institutions are adding more employees and paying their existing workers more, according to a study by MassINC.

The study found that the average daily inmate population of state and county correctional facilities dropped 12 percent between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2016, falling from 23,850 to 20,691. Yet despite fewer inmates to oversee, the budget for prisons and jails has increased by 18 percent, or $181 million, over the same time period. (Strangely, the budget allocations for corrections don’t correlate exactly with expenditure records, which show an increase in actual spending of $167 million.)

The budget for the state Department of Correction increased by $62 million, or 12 percent, over the six-year period. The budget for the state-funded county sheriff departments rose $119 million, or 24 percent. The $619 million budgeted for sheriffs and the $594 million budgeted for the Department of Correction add up to $1.2 billion, which is slightly more than what the state appropriates for higher education.

The report by MassINC, which is the publisher of CommonWealth, said 84 percent of the spending increase for corrections went to employee payroll. At county sheriff departments, annual salaries for full-time staff over the six-year period rose 17 percent to $63,586. At the state Department of Correction, the average annual salary for full-time staff rose 22 percent to $76,037.

One of the most interesting anomalies in the data was the fact that the payroll at sheriff departments actually increased over the six-year period even as the number of inmates in custody dropped. The number of employees in just security and supervisory roles grew 9 percent to 4,866, which means the sheriff facilities employed one worker to watch every 2.1 inmates.

Overall, the study indicated the total employee count at sheriff departments increased by 5 percent to 7,961, even as the number of inmates fell 16 percent to 10,363. At Department of Correction facilities, by contrast, the employee headcount fell 4 percent to 5,508 as the number of inmates dropped 8 percent to 10,598.

Michael Widmer, the former president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation who co-authored the report with MassINC research director Ben Forman, said he was surprised that spending was going up as inmate populations were declining. But he said he was astounded that the employee-per-inmate ratio at county facilities was 1:2.

“It’s a staggering number. At least at the Department of Correction, the head count was going down,” he said.

Pressed on what he thinks is happening with hiring at correctional facilities, he said the numbers make  no sense on the surface. “It’s a huge question what’s going on,” he said. “But it’s likely there’s some padding of the payroll.”

Total expenditures per inmate in fiscal 2016 at the 12 county sheriffs varied widely. Berkshire was tops at $87,579, followed by Norfolk ($72,572) and Suffolk ($71,221). The bottom three in terms of expenditures per inmate were all departments run by Republican sheriffs – Bristol was lowest at $41,013, followed by Worcester at $43,553, and Essex at $46,792.

MassINC has been promoting policies on Beacon Hill that would reduce spending on jails without jeopardizing public safety. The think tank has pushed for sentencing reform, specifically doing away with mandatory minimum sentences. It has also advocated for prison reentry programs designed to reduce the number of inmates who cycle in and out of jail.

According to a Council of State Governments presentation in July 2016, two-thirds of the inmates coming out of county jails in Massachusetts face arraignment again within three years and nearly half of them are convicted. At Department of Correction facilities, 57 percent are arraigned again within three years and 38 percent are convicted.

The MassINC report found the state’s correctional facilities are spending very little on recidivism reduction initiatives and suggested that spending on programming outside the prison walls may be declining.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The report noted that the budget for educational programs at state correction facilities was $7 million in 1990, enough to allow more than 2,000 inmates to participate in college courses. By 2005, the funding had been eliminated entirely.

More recently, a program called Overcoming the Odds that helped inmates leaving Department of Correction facilities lost its federal funding last fall and shut down. The MassINC report said 90 percent of the 297 people who participated in the program completed it.