The incarcerated population in Massachusetts has been dropping steadily for close to a decade at the same time that spending on corrections has been growing, divergent trends that prompted reform advocates to call Tuesday for more transparent reporting from state government.
As a panel of lawmakers, sheriffs, administration officials and experts approaches an end-of-month reporting deadline, former assistant attorney general John Bowman urged the group to focus on the disparity between how many people the state has imprisoned and how much money state government spends to fund the Department of Correction and county sheriffs.
"The problem does not seem to be a lack of funding," Bowman, who is now an Access to Justice fellow, said during the commission's public hearing. He said data indicate "program spending behind bars fails to reduce the recidivism rate after reentry."
Between fiscal years 2016 and 2020, the average population of people in Department of Correction custody declined from 9,743 to 7,935, according to data published by the Special Commission on Correctional Funding.
Over that same five-year span, the agency's total spending increased from about $580 million to more than $732 million, driving up the cost per inmate from $59,535 in FY2016 to $92,368 in FY2020.
Spending at county houses of correction also typically grew between FY2016 and FY2020, the commission's data found, though authors noted that the COVID-19 pandemic and response may render the final year in the series "misleading" for trends.
Pointing to the panel's data, Bowman said the increases in overall spending have not translated into expanded programming that correctional facility inmates can access. Bowman called for additional reporting from correction officials to address what he described as a "missing piece."
"It seems to me if you outline those concerns and start saying that I want to track within the prison system itself the relationship of inmates to educational, substance abuse, and other types of programs and come out and see what is actually happening and how many people are getting affected, how many people are getting missed, where the consequences are, we'd know a lot more about where we want to put our dollars and we'd know a lot more about what is effective," he said.
The state's declining incarcerated population fits into a trend stretching back nearly a decade. In 2012, the Department of Correction counted 11,723 inmates under its jurisdiction; by 2021, that had dropped to 6,848, a 42% decline.
A DOC spokesperson did not immediately provide comment in response to a News Service inquiry about what drove the increase in spending amid declining inmate populations.
Created in the fiscal 2020 state budget, the correctional funding commission chaired by Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont and Rep. Michael Day of Stoneham was given a Sept. 1, 2020 deadline to submit a report containing recommendations about "the appropriate level of funding for the department of correction and each sheriff's department." The panel received two extensions to its deadline and now is tasked with filing its recommendations by Jan. 31, 2022.
At a Dec. 20 meeting, Brownsberger and Day presented key questions they believe will define the panel's remaining consideration, including whether it is possible to create a funding formula based on incarcerated populations, the role of staffing shortages in cost recommendations, and how to standardize recidivism rates and other ways of measuring incarceration outcomes.
Elizabeth Matos, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services, on Tuesday told the commission that she believes there are still "basic questions left unanswered" more than a year after its original reporting deadline, including "why some counties are spending far more on programming, behavioral health care and medical care and why others are not."
"We also don't know what outcomes are produced from the increased spending to be able to compare the impact of that spending on incarcerated people on the communities to which they return," Matos said. "We don't seem to know exactly why a precipitous increase in funding and staffing has not led to a proportionate increase in spending on programming across the board or a correlated decline in recidivism rate."
The state's website publishes one- and three-year recidivism rate reports based on inmates released from DOC custody.
In 2016, the most recent year with a one-year rate report available, the department said 13% of inmates released to the community at the end of their sentence and 29% of those released on parole were again incarcerated within a year, including for technical violations of parole or probation.
Compared to five years earlier, the recidivism rate in 2016 was down marginally for inmates who completed sentences and up slightly for those released on parole.
DOC said in its 2011 one-year rate report that 12% of incarcerated individuals released at the end of a sentence and 33% of offenders released to the street with parole conditions landed in prison or jail again within a year, including technical parole and probation violations.
Matos told the panel that recidivism data is often publicly unavailable from sheriffs, who oversee county houses of correction. Brownsberger responded that tracking those rates poses a challenge for correction officials.
"Anybody who comes through the criminal justice system actually has contact with a whole lot of different agencies, often multiple counties, often parole, probation, substance abuse treatment in the community," the Belmont Democrat said. "I'm not really convinced that it should be on the county sheriffs to track recidivism. Actually, it's something that is sort of on the system as a whole to track outcomes and not just one entity in isolation."
"I would agree with that," Matos replied. "With probation and parole, there are different housing mechanisms that come into play. We're not going to get a very reflective recidivism rate if there isn't a whole lot of coordination there. I agree out of fairness it's not really on the sheriffs' shoulders, but to the extent that many are tracking it, what we do have should probably be accessible and reported."