Metro

State prison spending soars despite falling population

A corrections officer performed a routine head count inside a special treatment unit at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File
A corrections officer performed a routine head count inside a special treatment unit at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley.

The state’s inmate population has declined in recent years, but Massachusetts is still spending more money to operate jails and prisons, specifically to pay corrections staff, according to an independent criminal justice report that questions the state’s spending priorities.

Spending for the Department of Correction and the 14 county sheriffs’ offices outpaced inflation and rose 18 percent from 2011 to 2016, reaching $1.2 billion, according to the report by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, or MassINC, a nonpartisan think tank.

The prison population, which was at its peak in 2011, declined by 3,000 inmates, or 12 percent, in those same years, according to the report.

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The report, which is slated to be presented Monday morning at a Criminal Justice Reform Coalition Policy Summit, raises questions about the state’s spending priorities at a time when legislators and policy makers have proposed reforms to the state’s criminal justice system and the approach to inmates. Scheduled speakers at the summit include Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants and US Representative Katherine Clark, Democrat of Melrose.

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The report’s authors questioned whether the state should have been spending the savings it could have realized from the drop in the inmate population on rehabilitation programs — such as drug or mental health counseling — that might help reduce recidivism rates, and possibly result in even more savings. Instead, the state has redirected more money to raise pay for corrections officers or for new hires, accounting for 84 percent of the total growth in spending.

“This report raises fundamental questions about where taxpayer dollars go when they enter the criminal justice system,” said Greg Torres, president of MassINC.

Officials with the governor’s office and the state Executive Office of Public Safety would not comment on the findings, saying that they look forward to reviewing the report, which was not scheduled to be released to the public until Monday morning.

But the report’s findings are bound to become a point of discussion as Governor Charlie Baker’s administration considers a Justice Reinvestment Initiative that calls for an overhaul of the state’s criminal justice system, particularly in prison release programs. The state Senate has also proposed a series of reforms.

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The legislative focus on criminal justice policy comes as a poll of Massachusetts voters shows that Republicans, Democrats, and independents support an end to long mandatory sentences and the creation of more rehabilitation programs for prisoners.

The poll last week by the MassINC Polling Group shows that 53 percent of Massachusetts voters think incarceration would make an inmate more likely to commit new crimes. Also, 42 percent think there are too many people in Massachusetts prisons, while 23 percent say the number is appropriate.

Ben Forman, research director for MassINC, said there is no easy way to explain the state’s drop in inmate population, though he pointed to a general retreat from tough-on-crime policies.

But, he said, the state has failed to take advantage of the savings it could have seen.

The 18 percent growth for correctional spending was 1.5 times greater than the rate of increase for state K-12 education spending, and twice the rate of growth for general local aid, according to the report, titled “Getting Tough on Spending.”

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State spending per inmate increased 34 percent between 2011 and 2016, according to the report, while education spending per student increased by only 11 percent, and local aid per resident grew 6 percent.

Forman said he could not speculate on whether the state has simply brought wages for corrections officers to appropriate levels, or whether it needed to increase staffing levels, saying each county sheriff’s office pays different salaries and sets different priorities. A spokesman for the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, which represents state corrections officers, could not be reached for comment.

The number of employees involved directly in security and supervision at the state’s prisons fell by 8 percent, in line with the prisons’ falling inmate population. But the number of positions at county jails grew nearly 9 percent, in spite of a 16 percent drop in the county jail inmate population.

In 2016, the cost of housing an inmate in a state prison was $55,616 a year, a 22 percent increase from 2011.

Meanwhile, state spending for program services for inmates declined during that time, from 3 percent of the total corrections spending in 2011, to 2.7 percent in 2016. The number of employees assigned to prison education programs also decreased.

In an interview Sunday, Forman said the report attempts to address what he called the “inertia in correctional budgets,” in which state dollars are handed out for correctional spending without oversight or legislative intent.

The report’s authors called on legislators to create a specific budget line item for rehabilitation programs, to designate funding separate from operational budgets.

“A little adjustment there would be a lot of savings, a lot of programming, a lot of [reducing] recidivism,” Forman said. “It’s something to be looked at.”

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.