February 25, 2004
Establish Department of Correction Public Accountability
The Cost of
the Incarceration Boom
Correction Expenditures Rise, while Programs and Oversight are Cut
Over the last 20 years increasingly stringent "Get Tough on Crime" policies have resulted in turning prisons into one of the fastest growing components of the Commonwealth's budget today. These policies have proven to be a major burden on many fronts.
Governor Weld articulated this "get tough" approach when he announced in 1992 that "prison should be like a tour through the circles of hell." Around the same time he stopped appointing members to the Department of Correction advisory board, effectively eliminating the only civilian oversight that could shed light into how the rapidly expanding state prisons were being run.
The DOC budget has nearly doubled over the last 10 years. A recent report found that for the first time, the state is spending more on prisons ($830 million) than on public higher education ($816 million). In 2001 DOC spent $38,800 per inmate, when the national average was $26,700. Last year the annual cost to house an inmate rose to over $41,000, according to the DOC. According to the Boston Globe the average spending per prisoner was closer to $47,000.
The prison population grew from about 2,000 state inmates in 1974 to its current size - about 10,000 inmates. (There are another 12,000 people in county prisons.) DOC facilities are very overcrowded - they average 134% of design capacity and the high security prisons are at 157% of capacity. The decision in 2002 to close three minimum-security facilities - the least expensive to run - forced low-risk inmates into more costly medium- and high-security facilities. Today about half of state prisoners are currently over-classified, putting them under tighter restrictions with fewer programs, but more expensive housing. Massachusetts now has 2.7 prisoners for every guard - the most expensive staffing ratio in the country.
Education, reentry, and other programs that reduce recidivism have been cut from about 2% to less than 1% of the current DOC budget. These types of programs have become almost nonexistent. However, despite reduced programming, the correction budget has continued to rise. Massachusetts prisoners are incarcerated at higher levels of security and receive less training than national averages.
Prisoners do not seem to be benefiting from DOC's large budget. Unless declared indigent, prisoners must buy their own clothes (work boots $85), toothpaste ($1.80 for 3 oz) and other necessities - all from DOC's commissary. Inmates haven't been allowed to receive clothes or items from those on the outside in years. Many don't have families willing or able to send much money. Those inmates lucky enough to get a sought-after prison job may receive as little as 25 cents a day for their work.
What is the public getting for its money? More people are sent to prison
for longer periods of time and given fewer opportunities for education,
training, or work. DOC's most recent report, which is seven years old,
shows a recidivism rate of 41%. If almost half the inmate population that
is released then re-offends and returns to prison, the goal of rehabilitation
is not being met. The unintended consequences of "tough on crime" policies
have been to build a prison industry that expands itself at the public
expense but has not increased public safety, even at nearly double the
Alternatives Will Reduce Fiscal Costs and Increase Public Safety
This legislative session offers a crucial window of opportunity to push
for change. Public furor has been raised over the murder of John Geoghan,
the death under questionable circumstances of Kelly-Jo Griffen, and published
reports on excess correctional costs at a time when education and services
for our citizens are being cut. Solutions should involve community alternatives
to incarceration, better programming and pre-release planning, and meaningful
civilian overview of prisons.
The League of Women Voters of Massachusetts supports:
An Act to Create a Correction Citizen Review
H.4457 will improve the transparency of the criminal justice system by creating an independent review board to observe and report on various aspects of the correctional system. H.4457, sponsored by Rep. Kay Kahn, received a favorable report from the Joint Committee on Public Safety in December. It is currently being considered by the House Committee on Rules and is expected to go to House Ways and Means.
The Board will be charged with studying and reporting to the public on:
Why is citizen review of correctional practices important?
The mandatory minimum sentencing bill, passed in 1988, resulted in many new people being sent to prison for long terms for nonviolent drug-related offenses. Even though those convicted of violent crimes could be eligible for parole after serving two-thirds of their sentences, those in for drug offenses must usually serve their full terms. This happens regardless of the circumstances surrounding their crime and of any steps they may have taken while in prison to rehabilitate. Prison cells are now replacing detox and mental health facilities as housing for the sick. Most drug offenders serve 2- to 5-year sentences; some serve as many as 15 years. Parole, which the League has long supported, needs to be provided more often.This situation would be mitigated by S.167, introduced by Sen. Cynthia Creem. S.167 would make individuals with mandatory minimum drug sentences eligible for parole after serving two-thirds of their sentence in prison, matching the current eligibility standards for those convicted of violent crimes. It would:
Limiting the Use of Solitary Confinement as a Punishment
Most Massachusetts prisons have control units where correctional officers
(guards), not judges, sentence inmates to solitary confinement for 23 to
24 hours a day. At the Disciplinary Detention Unit in MCI-Cedar Junction,
solitary confinement can last for years. Prisoners there are denied educational
or therapeutic programming. Yet inmates in control units are more likely
than the general population to have histories with the Departments of Mental
Health and Mental Retardation. Considerable evidence shows that long-term
mental impairment, psychotic states and suicidal behavior results from
H.1180 - Treatment of Mentally Ill Prisoners:Prisoners
who attempt self-mutilation or suicide can be punished with up to two years
in solitary confinement for each offense. Isolation facilitates mental
deterioration, often creating never-ending cycles of self-destructive behavior.
H.1180, sponsored by Rep. Byron Rushing, would protect prisoners
who attempt self-injury from being punished with isolation and make it
mandatory that they receive emergency medical treatment.
H.2493 - Recidivism Reports: One of the
best measures of the effectiveness of correctional policy is the recidivism
rate, meaning the percentage of inmates who are reincarcerated after release.
These figures are not calculated consistently to compare with national
averages. DOC's latest report from seven years ago states that almost half
of ex-inmates were returned to prison within three years of leaving. H.2493,
sponsored by Rep. Gloria Fox, would require annual reports on recidivism
rates, including statistics on those released from isolation. Now that
the Disciplinary Detention Unit has been in use for over 10 years, legislators
should know how much this "program" is costing the state and what results
it is yielding.
The League urges the Commission to recommend passage of these four bills this session to make our correctional policies more humane and cost-effective.