We stand up for a Massachusetts where everyone gets a fair shot, does and pays their fair share, and plays by the same rules.
Last week, hundreds and hundreds of faith leaders and community activists took to the Statehouse to call for criminal justice reform in their “Jobs Not Jails” event. All across the country, states are looking at their policies and questioning the rapidly rising costs of increasing incarceration – which can be connected to policy changes in the 1980s and ‘90s – and if there are better, and fairer, ways to manage public safety.
In Massachusetts, we’ve also seen our share of growing incarceration costs. A report issued by MassInc, “Crime, Cost and Consequences: Is it Time to Get Smart on Crime?” delivers telling facts and data: More people are being incarcerated and in higher-security facilities, recidivism is steadily growing, all of which is putting strain on our state budget. The state is on track to spend over $2 billion over the next seven years to build new prison units if we continue on our current pace, an investment that has the unfortunate side-effect of dragging down the economy.
And even while Massachusetts might not have the same scale of issues as other states, we can’t ignore the trends. The state’s prison and jail population has tripled since 1980 when Massachusetts instituted its “tough on crime” policies. Increased lock ups coincided with heightened spending. According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, Massachusetts spent $1.21 billion in 2012 on prisons, probation, and parole, compared to $907.8 million 2003, a 33 percent increase. To put this in perspective: ten years ago the higher education budget surpassed spending on corrections by 25 percent, but today the higher education budget is 21 percent lower.
The rise is spending is tied to stricter enforcement and mandatory-minimum sentencing, specifically for drug offenses. Inmates serve more time than those who committed similar crimes in 1990. Just these cases alone cost Massachusetts $150 million annually. The number of drug offenders account for more than a quarter of the state prison population over the last 25 years, and 70 percent of these prisoners are confined to prison due to the state’s mandatory-minimum sentencing statutes. According to the report, reducing sentencing time and the number of inmates accused of drug offenses would save $90 million annually.
Over the last two decades, the number of inmates serving their sentence in a higher-security setting grew by more than 200 percent. Shifting an inmate up to a maximum-security facility costs the state $10,000 annually. Also, re-imprisonment rates are on the rise – about 60 percent of inmates released are repeat offenders within six years. Massachusetts can generate $150 million in savings if we reduce this by trend by 5 percent.
Incarceration has a lasting economic implication for those who serve time and their families, and should be factored in to how we evaluate how our criminal justice system works. Families are burdened with stagnant unemployment and lost wages, while the state loses tax dollars. According to national figures, former inmates earn 40 percent less annually than they would have if they had not been sent to prison. Incarcerated workers in Massachusetts lose upwards of $760 million in wages annually, which amounts to $20 million a year in reduced tax collections. Half of the nationwide inmate population has children under the age of 18. These children are four times as likely to be supported by the child welfare system.
The report notes:
“Virtually every dollar that went into prisons led to cuts in public support for other vital state services, including a number of programs that are known to have a known preventative effect on criminality.”
The Jobs Not Jails Coalition is calling on lawmakers to remove many of the mandatory minimum sentencing rules, restoring judicial control over sentencing, especially in non-violent drug crimes. As the state saves money, the coalition is calling for those funds to be invested in job training, apprentice programs and other economic development which can help create the kind of opportunities which prevent crime in the first place.
Guest post by Samantha Alper