Making sense of correctional spending 

MASSACHUSETTS SPENDS MORE than $1 billion a year to incarcerate roughly 13,000 people in its state prisons and county houses of correction, but a lot of the details of that spending are shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. 

As part of the recent wave of attention to criminal justice reform, the Legislature recently formed a special commission to try to make sense of correctional spending in the state. The call for a commission was driven by a steep drop in the state’s inmate population – the total is now roughly half the peak of recent decades – that has occurred with no corresponding reduction in corrections spending. Meanwhile, per inmate spending varies widely among the state’s 14 sheriffs who oversee houses of correction, and there is widespread concern among those outside the system that inmates are not receiving adequate rehabilitative services while behind bars. 

A big takeaway from the commission’s recently issued report, said its two co-chairs, Sen. Will Brownsberger and Rep. Michael Day, on this week’s Codcast, is the need for much clearer information on spending and inmate programming in order to assess what changes are needed. 

The overall “opaqueness” of funding issues was the foremost concern, said Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat.

The commission was unable to get at the question of whether there are cost savings that could be achieved, through facility consolidation or other means, because the state first has to “get down to an apples to apples comparison on what’s being spent in these facilities, and I think one of the biggest findings of this commission was that we don’t have that ability right now,” said Day, a Stoneham Democrat. “Different things are being reported. Different things are being classified in different ways by facility, by office, by agency. And one of the recommendations here was that we align those better so that we understand where this money is being spent, where there are opportunities for savings or consolidation. Right now it’s almost like throwing a dart in the dark.”

Annual per-inmate spending varied from about $100,000 in Berkshire County’s system to roughly half that amount in Essex and Bristol counties. Although many county systems are currently operating at less than half their design or rated capacity, Brownsberger and Day said there needs to be more granular scrutiny of facilities to determine whether that rated capacity is actually the right target or whether current thinking on corrections would argue for more space than in the past. 

The commission said there is currently no clear definition of what constitutes “evidence-based” programming, making it difficult to assess whether spending is going to programs with a clear track record of helping reduce recidivism or other outcomes. What’s more, the reported rates of conditions for which programming is targeted, such as mental illness and substance abuse disorder, vary so widely that it seems clear that sheriffs are using different measurement criteria. Franklin County, for example, reported that 90 percent of its inmates suffer from serious mental illness issues, while Barnstable and Bristol counties pegged that rate at under 20 percent among inmates in their facilities. 

“That’s part of the frustration,” said Day. “We’ve got to have a common agreed upon set of definitions as classifications. And then we can figure out what programming slots into what area.” 

The commission found a huge variation in spending on inmate programming, ranging from more than $7,000 per inmate annually in Berkshire County to just $1,000 a year in Bristol County. 

“It shouldn’t be as wide as it is,” said Brownsberger. “I think there’s some very good things happening in many sheriffs’ facilities, but we don’t have confidence that that’s happening across the state.” Though the commission did not reach consensus on the issue, Brownsberger said he and some members have “a strong instinct” to have inmate programming overseen by a statewide office, something that may get attention “legislatively” in the months to come. 

Brownsberger and Day said the Legislature will be working with the state Department of Correction and county sheriffs to streamline and come up with uniform measures for the whole range of variables that impact corrections spending. 

“Mike and I are both really committed to making sure that we follow through,” Brownsberger said of his and Day’s resolve to untangle all the issues around correctional spending and then recommend changes they think make sense. 




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