Corrections data raise big questions

Where is the ‘justice reinvestment’ as inmate populations fall?

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM rolled through state legislatures with unusual bipartisan support throughout the 2010s. There was rare consensus on what would happen: Rolling back tough-on-crime-era policies that spiked prison populations would generate savings, which could prudently be reinvested in behavioral health treatment and other services to reduce recidivism, which would drive down demand for prison beds further still.

While Republicans and Democrats remain committed to this basic formula in principle, in practice, most states have failed to realize and repurpose substantial savings. Many believe so-called justice reinvestment will meet the same fate in Massachusetts, especially given the absence of provisions to capture savings in the state’s 2018 criminal justice reform package.

Perhaps a new legislative commission charged with examining correctional expenditures will prove these prognosticators wrong. Chaired by state Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont, an architect of the 2018 reform law, the commission is probing the budgets of the Department of Correction and 14 county sheriffs departments. While naysayers point to the lackluster record of recent criminal justice reform commissions, there are signs that this body could succeed. For starters, the group has been meeting regularly, providing the public with advance notice of meetings, and transparently sharing information on a website.

A major test will be how the commission tackles the data challenges it is bound to face. A 2013 report from a commission charged with exploring consolidation of sheriffs departments highlighted the “pressing need to identify and implement best practices in human resources management” in order to ensure more transparency and uniformity across agencies. Unfortunately, this need was left unaddressed.

Across the 14 sheriffs departments, there are thousands of different staff position titles, which makes it difficult to gauge what is happening and at what cost to taxpayers. To make matters worse, there is no consistent way to classify tens of millions of dollars in contracts to vendors providing various services.

MassINC has spent a considerable amount of energy trying to organize correctional payroll and expenditures figures such as they are. While our best efforts offer only a murky understanding of what’s happening in correctional facilities across the state, they give the commission a head start by raising two central questions.

First, why do nearly all of the sheriffs departments appear to be hiring additional correctional officers when their inmate populations have declined steadily since 2011? Payroll records obtained through the Office of the Comptroller’s CTHRU system indicate the 14 sheriffs departments added nearly 700 security and supervision staff between 2011 and 2019. This 17 percent increase in security and supervision headcount occurred over a period in which the number of individuals held in county correctional facilities fell by 24 percent. Adjusting for inflation, the additional hiring pushed expenditures on salary for security and supervision staff up by 30 percent, or $76 million, between 2011 and 2019.

The charts below show the largest increases were appropriately in Essex and Plymouth, where inmate-to-security and supervision staff ratios were, and continue to remain, higher relative to the other departments. But county sheriffs departments now have an average of just 1.8 inmates for each security and supervision staff member, down from 2.9 in 2011 and well below national averages.

Getting a handle on the appropriate number of security and supervision staff for each facility will be one of the most difficult issues for the commission to address. Perhaps facilities need these additional officers to allow inmates to spend more time out of their cells receiving services. It is also possible that many of these officers are working out of title, delivering services, as opposed to simply watching over inmates.

On the other hand, one could argue that as commitments fall and facilities have fewer inmates, administrators should close units and replace correctional officers providing security and supervision with professionals trained to deliver rehabilitative services (either by hiring new staff or using more of their budget appropriation to purchase services from outside providers).

Department of Correction staffing patterns suggest this kind of realignment is achievable. The agency responded to a 22 percent drop in its custodial population by reducing security and supervision staff by about 10 percent from 2011. However, closer analysis of the Comptroller’s payroll and contractual expenditure data suggest savings from these staff reductions went primarily to salary increases for incumbent workers, rather than additional hiring or procurement to provide more rehabilitative services.

This brings us to the second matter the commission must address. Do agencies have sufficient resources to provide rehabilitative services that prevent crime and save taxpayers money in the long run, and are they using their resources accordingly?

Sheriffs departments get the vast majority of their funding through individual line items in the state budget. As illustrated in the figure below, these line items appear to be wildly unequal. In fiscal year 2018, the most recent year for which complete expenditure figures are available, the Barnstable County Sheriff’s Department spent over $83,000 per inmate, more than double neighboring Bristol County, where expenditures were just shy of $40,000 per inmate. The interactive figure below shows how per inmate expenditures have changed over time. It is clear that these longstanding and relatively stable disparities are not driven by some facilities experiencing larger population declines than others in recent years.

A variety of other factors could explain these persistent differences in spending per inmate. For instance, some sheriffs may operate facilities with layouts that require more staff to secure. Others may have responsibilities outside of corrections, such as running regional 911 call centers.

Putting these factors aside, variation in actual spending on rehabilitative services across agencies suggests disparities in the state budget appropriation does mean some facilities have far less money to deliver rehabilitative services that prevent repeat offending.

Franklin County spent $8,566 per inmate on health services, but just to the south in Hampshire County health services expenditures were 40 percent lower at $5,050 per inmate. Suffolk ($8,371) and Middlesex ($5,140) counties show similarly wide disparities in health expenditure per inmate. The differences across agencies are even larger when comparing program services, a category that includes education, job training, counseling, and reentry support. On a per inmate basis, Franklin County ($5,468) spent 6½ times more on program services than Essex County ($831); inmates in Barnstable ($4,609) received three times more expenditures on program services than those in neighboring Bristol ($1,342).

Pointing to these disparities, some argue that electing sheriffs creates “justice by geography” and the state should provide individuals with the same standard of care by consolidating the agencies and managing them with professional staff. Others believe the sheriffs are the bright spots in Massachusetts, and the state-run Department of Correction is the entity most in need of an overhaul. Both sides in this argument rely on anecdote rather than evidence. If Massachusetts wants better results from justice reinvestment than other states have posted, the correctional expenditure commission must address the need for budgets based on reliable data, a consistent understanding of the evidence-based services all correctional facilities should uniformly provide, and the resources each facility requires to deliver them effectively.

Meet the Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

Ben Forman is the research director of MassINC, the corporate parent of CommonWealth. Forman is a member of the Special Commission on Correctional Funding.