Prison spending up as inmate population drops

RYAN HUTTON/ Staff photo The Essex County Sheriff's Office, which operates the Middleton House of Correction, has one of the lowest spending levels per inmate in the state. It proposed spending about $41,278 per inmate for the budget year that begins July 1. Only Bristol County spends less. 

BOSTON — Massachusetts is locking up fewer people than seven years ago but still spending more money to operate jails and prisons, according to a new report.

Spending for the Department of Correction and the 14 county sheriffs’ offices has risen by 25 percent from 2011 to the fiscal 2019 budget, reaching almost $1.4 billion, according to a report by MassINC, the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, a nonpartisan think-tank.

The prison population has declined by 21 percent, or more than 5,000 inmates, from its peak in 2011 to the present year, according to the report.

Meanwhile, employee compensation at both the state Department of Correction and sheriff's offices is up about 20 percent during that time, according to the report's authors, who say the savings from a declining inmate population could have been used on rehabilitation programs such as drug or mental health counseling.

"If more dollars were going to provide job training and other services that reduce the likelihood individuals will re-offend when they get out, that would be one thing," said Ben Forman, MassINC's research director. "But the money is going to hiring more correctional officers and increasing staff pay."

The Essex County Sheriff's Office, which operates the Middleton House of Correction, has one of the lowest spending levels per inmate in the state. It proposed spending about $41,278 per inmate for the budget year that begins July 1, the report found. Only Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson's office spends less.

Middlesex, Barnstable and Berkshire counties plan to spend an estimated $90,000 on each inmate in the coming fiscal year.

Likewise, Essex County spends only about $500 per inmate on education and program services, according to the report's authors.

Middlesex County spends about eight times that amount, or $4,251 per inmate, the report noted.

The Essex County sheriff's budget has increased from about $46.1 million in fiscal year 2011 to nearly $70 million this fiscal year, according to state data. Spending per inmate by the sheriff's office has increased by 30 percent, from $31,521 in 2011.

Officials with the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Essex County Sheriff's Office didn't respond to requests for comment for this story.

Political funding

The Middleton jail is one of the state's largest, with an estimated 5,000 prisoners passing through it each year, according to the state Department of Correction. The facility typically houses more than 1,100 people at a time, many of whom are awaiting trial.

Forman said there is a political dimension to funding disparities at sheriff's offices. The Democrat-controlled Legislature has traditionally underfunded operating budgets of Republican sheriffs, creating "massive inequities" in spending between those correctional agencies, he said.

"It becomes a public safety problem because those sheriffs don't have enough resources for services to help inmates from re-offending," he said.

The Essex County sheriff was a Republican, Frank Cousins, for nearly 20 years before Democrat Kevin Coppinger took office in January 2017.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, has sought to even out some of those historical funding disparities by increasing allocations in the budget for Essex County and other sheriff's offices. But the spending requests are often reduced by legislative leaders, who largely control the state's purse strings.

The MassINC report follows passage of a wide-reaching overhaul of the state's criminal justice system, which focused largely on reducing recidivism.

Massachusetts has the second-lowest incarceration rate in the country, but more than half of those leaving state prisons end up back in court.

"We have one of the worst recidivism rates, and yet we spend almost nothing on reentry programs," said Lew Finfer, a spokesman for the Jobs not Jails Coalition. "There are states that spend more than $50 million a year to help people find jobs and housing and to get their lives back on track."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at

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