BOSTON — As the number of people incarcerated in Massachusetts state or county facilities declined since fiscal year 2011, state spending on correctional facilities climbed by about 18 percent, according to a report released earlier this week.
Since fiscal 2011 — the highwater mark for the state’s incarcerated population — the average daily number of people incarcerated in state prisons and jails has declined by about 12 percent from 23,850 to 20,961. However, state spending for the Department of Correction and the 14 county sheriffs’ offices increased by $181 million to $1.2 billion.
The report’s findings were the focus of a summit hosted Monday by MassINC and the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition to examine how the state could spend savings associated with a declining inmate population on ancillary programs like drug rehabilitation and mental health counseling to improve the broader criminal justice system.
“As we have a reducing population, we still have increasing costs of incarceration,” U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark said. “And we need those resources for so many other things.”
Indeed, advocates who want the state to invest more in programs to divert people from the justice system, in drug addiction treatment, or community-based work training programs have long been in competition with other budget needs and requests. Massachusetts is faced with a $462 million revenue shortfall in the current year’s budget, and rapid growth in MassHealth and other programs continues to limit available funding.
“We did this report, in part, because the broader context of the revenue picture in the commonwealth is one of very, very constrained revenues,” MassINC President Greg Torres said. “Boston’s going through a building boom, unemployment is low, all the leading economic indicators are high, yet it is not reflected in state revenue. So if we are going to find the resources we desperately need to do the things that make more sense, we’re going to have to do it with a realistic view of those constraints.”
The 18 percent growth rate in spending during the period studied outpaced spending growth for many other parts of the state budget, growing more than 1.5 times faster than the rate of increase for state education aid and twice the rate of growth for general local aid, according to the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth study.
“The disparities are even greater in relative terms,” the report, written by former Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Michael Widmer and MassINC research director Ben Forman, states. “For DOC and county facilities combined, the state budget allocation per inmate rose 34 percent between FY 2011 and FY 2016. Over this period, education aid per student increased by only 11 percent and local aid per resident grew just 6 percent.”
Most of the growth in correctional spending — 84 percent — was driven by new hires and rising employee compensation within the correctional fields, MassINC found. Total employee compensation grew faster than the 9 percent inflation rate between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2016 at the sheriffs’ departments (20 percent compensation growth) and at the DOC (18 percent compensation growth), according to the report.
Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe and Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, each a panelist at Monday’s summit, said managing a budget for a correctional institution is not as simple as collecting the roughly $55,000 it costs to house an inmate annually and then reducing expenses if the inmate population declines.
“So we let 10 people out of the Suffolk County House of Correction, is Sheriff Tompkins going to turn in $500,000 back to the general fund? No, he has fixed costs, he has union contracts,” O’Keefe said.
Widmer agreed that rising fixed costs can make adjusting a budget a more difficult task, but said the report found state spending on corrections grew at a faster clip than fixed costs since FY 2011.
“On the one hand fixed costs are rising and on the other hand, the prison population is declining. But we discovered that during this five-year period if the total budgets of the counties and the DOC had risen equal to inflation — equal to inflation — the total budgets would have been $72 million less than they are today,” he said. “So that is a potential savings, even allowing for an increase for inflation. And when we talk about reallocating resources to reduce recidivism and so forth, that is a huge pot of money.”
Forman suggested that budgeting for correctional institutions should be done more like budgeting for public schools, which like correctional institutions have fixed costs and variable costs per student.
“This time of year we’re reading about school districts all over the state … that are faced with letting teachers go because their numbers are coming down for the next school year,” he said. “Our correctional staffing should look similar to that.”
Asked about the report Monday afternoon, Gov. Charlie Baker said he had not yet read the report but would comment on it after he had.
“I haven’t seen it, so I can’t really comment on it. Although I seem to be the only one who hasn’t, so if somebody in the media would be willing to give me the copy that they seem to all have I would be perfectly happy to look at it and comment on it after I have a chance to read it,” he said. “I haven’t read it, so I don’t know what it says.”