This letter was submitted to the Massachusetts House and Senate Ways and Means Committees on January 31, 2022 to advocate building greater transparency and accountability into the Department of Correction (DOC) and Sheriffs’ Departments’ budgets. Substantial funding is allocated to incarceration each year despite a declining number of people in custody. With budget season kicking off, we are particularly concerned about the lack of effective solutions recommended by the Commission on Correctional Funding’s final report. The letter highlights that oversight is long overdue.
January 31, 2022
Aaron Michlewitz, House Chair
Ann-Margaret Ferrante, House Vice Chair
Michael J. Rodrigues, Senate Chair
Cindy F. Friedman, Senate Vice Chair
Joint Committee on Ways & Means
Dear Chair Michlewitz, Chair Rodrigues, Vice Chair Ferrante, Vice Chair Friedman, and Committee Staff:
With budget season upon us, we write to ask that you build accountability measures into the budget line item for the Department of Correction (DOC) and Sheriffs’ Departments, such as breaking out funding for distinct purposes and spelling out consequences for failing to meet reporting requirements or other responsibilities.
We respectfully call your attention to the testimony submitted by organizations and individuals to the Commission on Correctional Funding in early January. Joint testimony submitted by 55 organizations raises important concerns about the substantial funding allocated to incarceration each year, given the declining numbers of people in custody and given the documented harms that incarceration inflicts on people in custody and their families and communities (please find all of the testimony here at the end of this page on the Commission’s website).
The Commission summarizes its two main motivations as controlling correctional costs and improving programming for people who are incarcerated. However, the only cost control idea the Commission recommends is to consider consolidating some housing units in prisons and jails – and that recommendation depends on successful implementation of a recommendation to improve data collection about such units. We are concerned that another call for data collection is going to be ineffective without strong independent oversight that has the authority to demand consistent and timely compliance from the DOC and Sheriffs’ Departments. Furthermore, the single biggest cost in both DOC and Sheriffs’ Departments is custody staff, a cost that is deeply impacted by contracts that guarantee minimum levels of correctional officer staffing regardless of the number of people in custody, an issue that has been paid little attention, and which is not included in the draft of the report currently available to the public.
We also respectfully call your attention to the fact that the DOC and the Sheriffs successfully requested withholding of the staffing analysis overseen by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). Only brief summaries of 1-4 pages are available on the Commission’s website of these self-directed projects. Even the Commission members, to our knowledge, have not seen the full analysis. The public and the Legislature should be skeptical of any recommendations based on this analysis, unless the full methodology and results are made public.
Related, the Commission appears to accept that implementation of Chapter 69 (the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018) has resulted in increased costs because some prisons and jails have implemented one to two additional hours of out-of-cell time for people in solitary confinement, and the CJRA requires programming in restrictive housing units – instead of understanding these costs as a result of continued overreliance on segregation. As we know, most programming stopped during the pandemic. Moreover, the aim of criminal justice reform is to keep as many people in the general population as possible, not to build up a new infrastructure of indefinite segregated confinement.
At the Commission meeting on January 26, the second meeting to discuss the draft report, Sheriff Coppinger stated repeatedly that the prospect of a new proposed agency to standardize reporting and programming “scare[d]” him (this discussion begins around 53 minutes into this recording). After much discussion of Sheriff’s resistance to an “outside, independent” agency, the report was changed to recommend a new “structure” which might take any of several forms, including leaving it to the same DOC and Sheriffs’ Departments that have already failed to deliver on standardization, reporting, transparency, and accountability.
We also want to alert you to the way the Commission uses the term “programming” to refer to mental health and substance use treatment and other clinical services, which are properly understood as medical care. We are greatly concerned that this blurring of terms obscures the true level of spending on programs, such as education and vocational training, and also elides the constitutional obligation to provide medical care. Even with the conflation of these terms, we can see from the bar charts in the report that only a very small percentage of correctional spending goes to programming (as little as two percent, with a range of $1000-$7000 per person per year), yet the report includes no consideration of how funds could be re-allocated to increase programming access while reducing and controlling costs. We also question why the Commission omitted any discussion of the benefits of free communication between people who are incarcerated and their loved ones, when we know that maintaining family and community ties is so important and so cost-effective.
Another glaring omission is any recommendations to accelerate the downward trend in the numbers of people incarcerated, including maximizing the mechanisms the Commonwealth already has at its disposal to release and divert people, and considering reforms currently on the table that would also assist with safe and responsible depopulation. Massachusetts has an extraordinarily high proportion of elderly and infirm people living in prison; this population poses little threat to public safety, and the costs of incarcerating them are high, and increasing.
Finally, we are troubled by the new Common Cause report identifying ethically suspect campaign contributions that may be influencing Sheriffs’ decisions about vendors, contracts, and therefore use of the budget that this body provides.
We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you and your staff to discuss these issues. We can recommend reallocation of funds within the budget, areas for empirical research to inform decision-making, and how the budgeting process can bring needed oversight to the DOC and Sheriffs’ Departments.
Thank you for your attention to this letter. We look forward to hearing from you.
Jesse White, Policy Counsel, Prisoners’ Legal Services
Mary Valerio, Actual Justice Task Team, United Church of Christ
Rachel Roth, Independent Researcher and Consultant