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Safety at Any Price - Massachusetts Corrections Fiscal Failure

Safety at Any Price - Massachusetts Corrections Fiscal Failure

by Bob Williams

The guiding fiscal model of the Massachusetts criminal justice system for decades has been “safety at any price,” according to a December 2009 report by The Boston Foundation (Report). Analyzing corrections spending between 1998 and 2008, the report concluded that the massive growth in spending was driven neither by an equal growth in corrections populations nor by improved public safety (including reduced recidivism).

Nationally, corrections budgets have enjoyed a nearly 300 percent increase over the past 20 years as approximately one in 31 adults are under some form of correctional supervision in the United States. That’s 2.3 million people in prisons and jails and another 5 million on probation or parole—more than any other country in the world. In 1982, corrections budgets nationally totaled $9 billion. By 2007, they ballooned to $44 billion.

Between the nature of corrections and public fear, budgets have avoided deep cuts during lean economic times, and have received large increases during a normal economy. “Sentencing, parole and release policies often have been driven by headlines rather than by research into public safety and the reduction of victimization,” the Report concludes. The latest recession has forced a re-examination of this trend, with a focus on getting value for the taxpayers’ dollar.

Adjusted for inflation, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections budget increased over 12 percent between 1998 and 2008, while the prison population only increased by four percent. The county jail sheriffs’ budgets increased over 20 percent, with only an 11 percent increase in detainees. The parole board’s budget increased nearly three percent, but parolee numbers actually decreased by five percent. Finally, while the number of individuals on probation increased 14 percent, the budget increased a whopping 163 percent. Conversely, over the same period, budgets for state higher education, public health, and local aid decreased approximately eight, three, and one percent, respectively; only basic education saw an increase of just under 14 percent.

The recession has forced cuts across the board, yet corrections received a disproportionately low 1.9 percent budget reduction for the 2010 fiscal year. Similarly, the other three corrections areas received low budget reductions: county jails and probation budgets were cut between eight and nine percent each and the parole board’s budget was reduced by just over two percent. Meanwhile, legal aid, higher education, and public health dropped over 28, 17, and 13 percent, respectively. Social services and basic education dropped over five percent each.

The Report notes that even with 20 years of budget increases, recidivism and prison and jail overcrowding have not been reduced. The Report calls this “fiscally irresponsible.” To solve Massachusetts’s corrections problems, the Report recommends making recidivism reduction the collective goal of the entire criminal justice system. To aid this effort, a uniform data collection and information sharing system must be established which includes reforming the Criminal Offender Records Information system.

The Report also recommends policy-making should be guided by science and evidence-based programs that produce measurable results. Current laws that restrict access to supervised re-entry programs for many prisoners must be re-evaluated. A greater proportion of corrections resources should be directed to proven, recidivism-reducing programs and services, rather than to prison and jail infrastructures. Along these lines, the Report suggests directing more resources into preparing higher-risk prisoners for community re-integration; currently 83 percent of prisoners released from maximum security prisons and 40 percent of the general prison populations are released without any re-integration or parole supervision. Parole supervision, however, must include access to a collaboration of community-based programs and services that aid in a successful transition into society and not be a maze of failure traps. The Report does not detail the exact nature of the proposed programs and services.

Finally, as examples, the Report describes other progressive states that have successfully enacted similar reforms. As a result of reforms, Michigan closed 13 prisons and reduced parolees by 40 percent, parole revocations by 42 percent, and the prison population by seven percent, while saving $500 million. Similarly, Kansas has closed three prisons and a cell house, reduced parole revocations by 48 percent, has saved $34 million, and anticipates saving an additional $80 million. Connecticut has reduced revocation rates by 20 percent, the prison population by four percent and the rate of prison admission by 12 percent.

Despite the success of the states which have begun reforms, Massachusetts is considering a three-strike law, which will significantly increase the prison population for decades to come, and is also considering funneling $500 million for new prison construction (see House Bill 1423).

See: Crime & Justice Institute, Priorities in Public Safety: Reentry and the Rising Costs of our Corrections System, 2009