There is a lot of talk in Massachusetts about moving away from the misguided “tough-on-crime” policies of the 1990s and instead embracing a more rehabilitative approach to criminal justice. But as an important new study set for release Monday demonstrates, policy makers aren’t living up to the second part of the bargain.
The report, from the MassINC think tank, shows that even as the state’s average daily prison population declined by 12 percent over the last five years, corrections spending soared by 18 percent.
Even more troubling, the state poured the new money into guards and other security personnel, while spending on education, reentry programs, and other rehabilitation efforts held steady or declined.
Policy makers, in other words, did something like the opposite of what they say we should do. And the cost was enormous — not just for the inmates who departed jails and prisons ill-prepared for the outside world, but for the rest of us.
“We have had people leaving county correctional facilities doing really harmful things,” said Benjamin Forman, research director with MassINC and coauthor of the report, “Getting Tough on Spending.” “We can’t prevent all of that. But we know that we can prevent a good portion of that if we spend the dollars well.”
The catalogue of missed opportunity is thick.
In the fiscal year that ended in mid-2015, according to the study, more than one-quarter of sex offenders were released from prison without receiving the cognitive-behavioral therapy that can prevent them from re-offending. Nearly one in four with an addiction problem left prison without receiving the proper treatment.
Meanwhile, just 1 percent of prison spending goes to education programming. And a promising reentry program called Overcoming the Odds, aimed at moderate-to-high-risk inmates returning to high-crime neighborhoods in Boston, met with an abrupt end last fall when federal grant funds dried up and no one stepped in to keep the initiative going.
Bottom line: The declining prison population presented the state with an opportunity to pull tens of millions of dollars out of a bloated security budget and direct it into the kinds of programs that can prevent recidivism — and the state squandered it.
How, exactly, this happened is still not entirely clear. Why, for instance, did the state-run prisons manage to cut back on security staff as inmate populations declined, while county-run systems added more guards?
But the report suggests some steps that lawmakers can take right now, even amid the uncertainties.
They could start by allocating funds in the state budget to specific rehabilitation strategies. They’ve done it in the past. Legislators used to set aside money for inmates to take college courses, and in the 1990s some 2,000 prisoners hit the books. Very few do so now, in part because money is no longer allocated for that purpose.
Lawmakers could also create explicit mechanisms for steering dollars away from corrections when prison populations drop and investing them in proven, community-based services that otherwise struggle for funding. Using the savings from a smaller prison population to hire more guards and give them bigger paychecks doesn’t deliver on the transformative promise of criminal-justice reform.