The MBTA debacle should have been a foreseeable crisis and one that was avoided. I now ask: What is another crisis on the horizon? Prison overcrowding.
At 140%+ capacity, we know from other state’s experience that prison overcrowding is a disaster and problems have and will come from this crisis. The prison population is only going to go up. In 2009, Massachusetts taxpayers paid $25,000 to find out that our state’s Department of Correction population is going to grow approximately 26 percent, from 11,000 inmates at present to nearly 14,000 inmates, by 2019. And with the corresponding increase in inmates, we will also see an increase in the budget. When the population grows, so too does the budget.
We have a big problem on our hands and it very costly. The cost to build, staff, operate and maintain new prisons to house an additional 3,000 inmates would be enormous. The DOC has no control over who comes to its doors or for how long the inmate stays, so the expected population growth is not the DOC’s fault. This is only going to be made worse by the Massachusetts’ three strikes law, which despite best intentions, research from other states where this was implemented and personal experience tells me will be a disaster for Massachusetts.
At present, it costs an average of $46,000 per year to house an inmate in the DOC. But there is more to this figure than one might realize. This cost changes with the inmate’s security level, medical needs and other factors. What is less known is that, on average, the cost associated with one inmate’s specific needs is about $9,000 per year – this covers stuff like food, clothing, and other incidentals that we pay for on an inmate-by-inmate basis. The other approximately $37,000 are fixed costs such as lighting, heating, salaries, and pensions which don’t change with an insignificant increase or decrease in the number of inmates.
WHO CARES ABOUT INMATES?
Many people wonder why law-abiding citizens pay taxes to cover an inmate’s medical care and other incidentals. The thing is that to deny an inmate medical care would be a violation of the 8th Amendment. The 8th Amendment is about who we are as a civilized nation, not about inmates getting a free ride – inmates get what they get by default.
The United States has been engaging in an experiment in mass incarceration since the 1970s. As a society we have gotten “tougher on crime” to decrease crime by increasing the length of sentence and increasing the reasons for admission to prison. Don’t misunderstand me; prison is necessary. If an offender is off the streets he won’t be committing crime. But since there is a lot that happens between a crime’s commission and offender incarceration, mass incarceration, as a solution, hasn’t worked. The proof is that: 1) no jurisdiction in the world has ever successfully built enough prisons to solve a crime problem, and 2) there is no relationship between increased incarceration rates and decreased crime. Crime rates have fluctuated while incarceration rates have steadily risen. Mass incarceration is budget busting, taking away from other pressing fiscal needs, and it is not decreasing crime rates. But the point here isn’t to talk about decreasing crime, it is about the budget and growing prison population.
One idea to address the budget is to charge inmates fees, which, at first glance, seems to make sense. However, there is no way to force inmates to pay. If push comes to shove and inmates don’t pay, what are we going to do keep them in prison longer? That would cost more than we would ever collect in fees. Garnish their wages after release? This is a disincentive to legitimate work. We could make conditions of confinement more uncomfortable for force payment, but that will invariably lead to more law suits, which are expensive. Inmate fees are a superficially good idea; they have a lot of associated problems and aren’t going solve budget problems.
DOC budget cuts won’t address the root cause of this problem. To address what to do about the prison’s budget or population we could consider the following five ideas:
1) We spend millions on treatment programs so we need to find out which prison programs are not reducing recidivism and either reform or cut those;
2) Offer an employee sick-time sell-back program, which offers COs a way to earn more money and decreases sick-time leave abuse. This saves a lot of money;
3) Increase probation and parole for short-term nonviolent offenders;
4) Shorten the length of stay of inmates for non-dangerous offenders. The longer inmates stay in prison the more costly it is; and most importantly,
5) Reform the public-employee retirement pension mess!
Clearly, there are more than just five ways to reduce the budget or population. And none of these five ideas are ever going to completely solve our budget or prison population problems, but they will help ease costs and help clean up our house in the process.
Taxpayers paid for prison population projections. These projections show we have a serious problem on the horizon. I hope something is being done with these projections to realistically and prudently address the rising prison population and rising prison budget so that we are not some day faced with a public safety crisis like the MBTA is today with service cuts and fare hikes.
Paul Heroux is an Attleboro resident and is a former Director of Research and Planning at the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Paul has a Master’s in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master’s in Public Administration from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.