Boston Foundation report urges reforms to strengthen state’s corrections system, contain growing costs and improve public safety

Economic pressures create an opportunity to adopt ‘best practice’ strategies

December 2, 2009

Boston – New research released by the Boston Foundation today identifies rapidly growing state corrections costs as an economic burden for the Commonwealth at a time of budget cuts forced by the ongoing economic crisis. According to the report, Priorities and Public Safety: Reentry and the Rising Costs of our Corrections System , the Commonwealth could ease this burden by adopting strategies proven to shrink prison populations and reduce rates of recidivism that have been used effectively elsewhere in the state and across the country.

The report, written by Len Engel, Senior Policy Analyst for the Crime and Justice Institute at Community Resources for Justice, examines the growth of the cost of corrections in Massachusetts in contrast to government spending for other competing sectors, identifies programs that could be adopted here, and describes specific reforms to bring costs under greater control.

“While we never invite tough times, there can be a ‘utility of trouble’ that inspires us to take on complex systems to refine the mission and improve the performance,” said Paul S. Grogan, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “This report offers us a roadmap to a more effective corrections process that can release funds for other areas where there is a critical need for investment.”

Upward trends in spending
The report tracks the recent explosion in corrections-related costs, in contrast to increases in competing state service budgets over the past 10 years, despite comparatively modest increases in the size of the incarcerated population. According to the report, recent increases in corrections budgets for Massachusetts have not only been out of proportion compared to other areas of public expenditure, but they have also failed to result in significant increases public safety outcomes.

In 2009, Massachusetts committed to spend more than $1.2 billion in corrections, including prisons, jails, probation and parole. That is more than any state service budget except for Local Aid ($1.3 billion) and the Department of Education ($4.5 billion). The corrections budget thus surpassed Higher Education, the Department of Public Health and the Department of Social Services. In terms of percentage growth, state expenditures on Local Aid, Public Health and Higher education have actually declined in the past decade, while spending on Education increased by less than 14 percent. Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections spending increased over 12 percent, spending by county Sheriffs increased over 20 percent, the cost of Parole increased 2.6 percent and the cost of Probation increased by fully163 percent.

Budget increases are often driven by increases in the size of the population served, but not in the case of corrections budgets. Corrections populations, after growing significantly between 1980 and the middle of the 1990s, with an increase of about 300 percent (Department of Corrections) and about 320 percent (sheriff’s departments) have increased overall only by about 5 percent in the past 10 years.

During this same time period, the number of people in the Parole Department actually decreased about 5 percent.  The number of people on probation saw a slightly larger increase but it paled in comparison to the significant budget increase given to the Probation Department.

There is also no evidence of a change in public safety outcomes, which remained static. This was measured by an examination of the number of times parole was revoked, by rates of recidivism rates for corrections populations and by surrenders or returns to incarceration of those on probation. The review of those who re-offended is spotty in parts because of a lack of data, especially after 2002.

Recent budget cuts driven by falling state revenues continue the pattern of protecting corrections budgets at the expense of other state priorities. For  2010, cuts in the budgets, respectively, for the Department of Corrections, the county sheriffs, Parole Board and Probation Department were reduced by 1.9 percent, 8.8 percent, 2.4 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively. In contrast, budgets for Higher Education, the Department of Public Healthand Local Aid were cut by 17.2 percent, 13.6 percent and 28.3 percent, respectively.

“The increases in the cost of our criminal justice system, coming as they do without external factors driving them, call for review of the system,” said Engel. “The public will pay for public safety but the lack of a discernable positive impact for the Commonwealth in return for this massive outlay suggests the need for alternative strategies that can serve the need for public safety and at the same time free up money to support other pressing priorities.”

New ideas show results elsewhere
Across the country, states are looking at the same budget crunch that Massachusetts legislators have confronted and have responded with significant changes in their criminal justice systems—with positive outcomes.

“Massachusetts has an opportunity to draw upon strategies proven effective elsewhere,” said John Larivee, CEO of Community Resources for Justice. “Change in this sector offers significant benefits across the board, to accelerate the pace of needed reform here in the commonwealth.”

The size of the incarcerated population in the United States has risen sharply over the past decades, from about 585,000 in 1987 to almost 1.6 million in 2007. Meanwhile, costs for spending on corrections have increased even faster—from $10.6 billion in 1987 to more than $44 billion in 2007. Despite the leap in cost, success rates have failed to keep pace, with recidivism rates exceeding 50 percent. Researchers note the increase in mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offences, “Three-strikes-and-you-are-out” laws and a general trend toward laws limiting judicial discretion, as well as laws limiting or eliminating parole as factors in the dramatic increase in the number of people incarcerated and in the costs associated with them.

Criminal justice policies are notoriously difficult to change because of the emotional reactions to high-profile crimes and the absolutist nature of “safety at any cost” political rhetoric. However, several states have taken the recent budget crises as an opportunity to implement reforms, and success has fueled interest in change as a means to achieve the primary goal of the system—increased public safety—while easing financial stresses at the same time. Three state profiles in the report show this pattern, including Michigan, Kansas and Connecticut.

Michigan began to reform its corrections system six years ago, requiring evidence-based programs for inmates returning to the community and an increase in using community supervision rather than long prison terms. Among the results have been:

    • Fewer offenders re-offending and fewer parolees returning to prison.
    • A decline in overall prison population of 7 percent in the past two years.
    • Savings for the state of $500 million since 2003.

Kansas based its changes on a 2006 report that called attention to the fact that nearly 65 percent of new prison admissions were offenders who had violated the terms of their previous release while on probation or parole. In response, Kansas:

    • Reformed its community supervision process to keep offenders with non-criminal violations in the community.
    • Began to require a 20 percent reduction in probationers sent to prison for violating the conditions of their release, and used financial incentives to encourage the adoption of evidence-based practices to reduce probation revocations.
    • Was able to close three prison units for a savings of $34 million and anticipate an additional $80 million in future corrections savings.

Connecticut adopted a number of changes, including:

    • A new law requiring a re-entry plan for all inmates leaving state custody to reduce recidivism.
    • Distributed savings garnered from a decline in prison populations to support community-based programs to combat recidivism.
    • Established a policy and planning division responsible for collecting data as well as tracking information and trends.

Potential solutions
In addition to a survey of innovative practices from around the country, the report includes a listing of principles and practices that could guide a corrections reform effort in Massachusetts. These include:

    • Make the reduction of recidivism a collective goal of the entire criminal justice system.
    • Establish uniform data collection and require information sharing.
    • Use science to guide decision making, building on copious research that already exists about what works.
    • Examine laws and practices that restrict access to supervised re-entry programs for non-violent offenders.
    • Promote collaboration with multiple stakeholders in the communities to which offenders return and use the existing community capacity to improve re-entry outcomes and reduce recidivism.
    • Reconsider allocations that direct significant resources to prison and jail infrastructure and far fewer to programs and services known to reduce recidivism.
    • Direct corrections resources to managing and preparing higher-risk offenders for successful transition into the community.


The Boston Foundation, Greater Boston’s community foundation, is one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the nation, with assets of $695 million.  In Fiscal Year 2009, the Foundation and its donors made $86 million in grants to nonprofit organizations and received gifts of over $72 million. The Foundation is made up of some 900 separate charitable funds established by donors either for the general benefit of the community or for special purposes.  The Boston Foundation also serves as a major civic leader, provider of information, convener, and sponsor of special initiatives designed to address the community’s and region’s most pressing challenges.  For more information about the Boston Foundation, visit or call 617-338-1700.