Correctional Spending Soars While Prison Population Declines, According to New Report from MassINC

“Getting Tough on Spending” Report Shows Waste, Inefficiencies in Staffing

The report, Getting Tough on Spending, an 18 percent increase in spending for the Department of Correction and county sheriff departments between fiscal 2011 and 2016, while the prison population declined by almost 3,000 or 12 percent. The research further shows that this growth is focused primarily on raises and new hires for correctional officers, and not on programs geared toward reducing recidivism and preventing violence or addressing the mental health and opioid crises in the state.

“This report raises fundamental questions about where taxpayer dollars go when they enter the criminal justice system,” stated MassINC President Greg Torres. “It also reinforces what we found in our latest public opinion research. Voters clearly want criminal justice reforms that lead to smarter investments in public safety.”

Getting Tough on Spending is the most detailed report on state correctional expenditure to date. It provides a thorough examination of recent budget trends and offers substantive policy recommendations.

The study, to be unveiled Monday at the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition Summit, shows that prisons and jails are a major cost center for state government – including not only the cost of incarcerating residents, but also the cost of recidivism. With support from the Boston Foundation, the research was compiled by Michael Widmer, a founding member of the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition and the former President of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, and Ben Forman, MassINC’s Research Director.

“At a time of tight state budgets, correctional spending grew much faster than inflation yet precious little was invested in programs to reduce recidivism,” said Widmer.

The report highlights five key findings that support the idea that correctional dollars are inefficiently allocated:

  • Despite a significant decline in the total number of individuals held in correctional facilities in recent years, spending on prisons and jails continues to rise. During this timeframe, the average daily population across Massachusetts correctional facilities dropped 12 percent while the combined budget allocation for the Department of Correction (DOC) and county sheriff departments increased by 18 percent to $1.2 billion. Though the number of individuals in the state’s prisons and jails fell, growth in correctional budgets outpaced inflation over this period by $72 million.
  • Between FY 2011 and FY 2016, correctional spending grew faster than many other components of the Massachusetts state budget. The 18 percent growth rate in correctional spending was more than 1.5 times faster than the rate of increase for state K-12 education aid, and twice the rate of growth for general local aid. Disparities are even greater in relative terms. The state budget allocation per inmate rose 34 percent between 2011 and 2016. Over this period, education aid per student increased by only 11 percent and local aid per resident grew just 6 percent.
  • Growth in correctional spending has largely been driven by rising employee wages and new hiring. Employee compensation accounted for 84 percent of the growth in correctional spending. Over this period of declining inmate populations, the number of employees in sheriff departments increased by 5 percent, pushing correctional officer staffing ratios down by nearly one-quarter, from 2.7 employees per inmate to 2.1 per inmate.
  • With inmate populations declining and correctional facilities seeing potential cost savings, spending categories associated with recidivism reduction did not increase significantly, and these services continue to represent a small fraction of total correction expenditure. Both staff and contractual spending on program services for incarcerated individuals declined from 3 percent to 2.7 percent of total correctional expenditure between 2011 and 2016. Further, the number of employees assigned to prison education decreased, and spending on inmate health services grew at less than half the pace of overall correctional expenditure.
  • There are large and growing disparities in correctional spending across agencies. For instance, Suffolk County spends more than $9,000 per inmate on medical care; inmates in Barnstable County receive just half that amount of care. Most funding to correctional agencies is provided by the state, and changes to state budget appropriations over the period of the study were not closely correlated with changes in the number of individuals held in these facilities.

“While our findings don’t reflect important incremental steps correctional leaders have made to put in place programs that reduce recidivism,” Forman said “they do underscore the need for budget-makers to take a more active role helping correctional administrators reallocate dollars to these evidence-based practices.”


Meet The Author

Llyr Johansen

Communications Director, MassINC

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