Criminal justice reform is complicated. Necessary, but complicated.
Trust me, I know firsthand. As sheriff of Suffolk County, I manage one of the largest correctional agencies in New England, providing care and custody to more than 1,600 people a day.
And while I have no role in deciding who is placed under my department’s supervision (this is the courts’ responsibility), it’s my duty to ensure these incarcerated men and women are afforded secure, humane living conditions, and the best programming and services possible.
Recently, much has been made of the declining incarceration rate in Massachusetts, now the 49th lowest nationwide. Given how disruptive incarceration is to individuals, families, and communities — and the incredible fiscal burden it places on taxpayers — this is a trend we should laud and continue to support.
In large part, this progress can be attributed to lawmakers, criminal justice officials, and community activists who have worked together to develop successful alternatives to jail and prison. Specialty courts, diversion programs, and myriad changes to sentencing and CORI law have created improvements in the way we mete out justice. Over the years, Massachusetts sheriffs have not only been leading advocates for these reforms, but have contributed greatly to the reduction in crime and incarceration by offering inmates and detainees innovative education, job-training, drug treatment, and reentry programs that reduce the likelihood of recidivism.
However, the reduction in incarceration these changes have produced — though encouraging — has not resulted in the cost savings that stakeholders had hoped for. A recent study by MassInc found that while the daily population in state and county correctional facilities dropped 12 percent between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2016, the aggregate corrections spending increased 18 percent.
At first blush, this statistic is confusing and troublesome. Why are correctional budgets growing when funding for so many worthy state programs has diminished? The truth is, it’s misguided to assume that a decline in the incarceration rate — unless vast and systemic — will generate meaningful cost savings.
There are multiple reasons for this.
First, and most important, we must look at the increased needs of those who are incarcerated.
As offenders with less significant charges are diverted away from the corrections system, incarceration is reserved for individuals with the most significant problems and barriers to success. Effectively delivering rehabilitative services to these men and women — which I think most people in Massachusetts would agree is the right thing to do — is one of the most resource-intensive undertakings in government.
One need not look further than my department’s admissions data to understand the breadth and depth of the crises we contend with. In 2016, we processed 11,000 unique admissions. Over 67 percent of our population suffers from a co-morbidity of mental illness and addiction. Between June and December of 2016 alone, we admitted 2,223 individuals who needed medical care at intake. Couple these problems with the prevalence of poverty, homelessness, and low educational attainment — most male inmates read at a fifth-grade level — and a more nuanced picture emerges of the expenses involved in helping the men and women in our custody.
Second, infrastructure and staffing patterns are a massive cost-driver. Modern correctional facilities — like Suffolk’s jail and house of correction — were designed specifically for humane detainment, regardless of the increased resources needed to run them. For good reason, we no longer warehouse individuals in massive, hundred-yard-long cell blocks. Instead, we have housing units with common areas, phones, and easily accessible bathrooms. For safety purposes, each unit typically requires multiple corrections officers on site, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, whether one inmate is housed there, or 70. Needless to say, the operational overhead involved is massive.
Third, sheriffs’ departments are a primary transportation provider for the Massachusetts justice system. Suffolk’s officers made 18,334 trips in 2016 — driving more than 47,542 detainees and inmates to courts, hospitals, and other correctional facilities from Boston to the Berkshires. Between labor, maintenance, and fuel, costs add up.
I often tell people my department is the largest de facto social service provider to the most marginalized residents in Suffolk County. The reality: We are not just a social service provider. We are a hospital, drug-rehabilitation clinic, mental health counseling center, school, job-training program, shelter, and public transportation provider. And while we take our fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers seriously, we take the needs of the individuals in our care equally seriously. To deny them that care would be immoral, and ultimately terrible for public safety.
Yes, Massachusetts boasts the second-lowest incarceration rate in the United States. But we still jail more people per capita than 95 percent of the world. If we truly want to reduce correctional spending in the long term — without denying currently incarcerated people the services they desperately need — we must dramatically stem the flow of new individuals into our jails and prisons. This will require bolder reform. Namely, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, overhauling our bail system, investing in more mental health and substance-abuse programming, and disrupting urban poverty at its roots.
Otherwise, reducing correctional budgets will rest on the backs of the poor, the addicted, and the mentally ill.
Steven W. Tompkins is the sheriff of Suffolk County and the president of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association.