“Lock ‘Em Up”? It Costs More Than You Think

Here’s a sobering thought: A shocking one in 24 Massachusetts adults were either in jail or under probation at the end of 2007, according to a study released earlier this week by the respected Pew Center on the States. The report, entitled “One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections,” analyzed prison populations at the federal, state and county level. The study ranks Massachusetts as being fifth in the nation when measuring the number of adults that are either incarcerated (in both state and federal prisons in Massachusetts), or under probation or parole. The cost to Massachusetts taxpayers: A stunning $1.25 billion (yes, that with a “b”.)

“In any year, spending $1.25 billion dollars on corrections is stunning. In a fiscal crisis, this kind of spending is unacceptably foolish. If finances is what finally moves the state to revamp its correctional policies, so be it,” said Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services. But while Massachusetts ranks fifth overall, we rank even higher when measuring parolees and probationers living in the community, vs. incarcerated in jail or prison. On that score, Massachusetts had the third highest rate of probation supervision, with 1 in 28 adults or 179,854 people answering to parole and probation officers at both the state and federal level.

But what to do about this overall problem? According to this study, parole is a more cost-effective way of monitoring offenders, reporting that it costs $130.16 to incarcerate an adult for one day. That same figure pays for 18 days of parole supervision in the community, the report said. The Pew Center said that for every dollar Massachusetts spent on prisons in 2008, it spent four cents on parole. The Pew report affirms state Department of Correction figures that indicate an exploding prison population. As proof, last year, the state began installing bunk beds in single cells at the maximum security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley to address system wide overcrowding.

By comparison, in 1982, one in 127 adults were involved in the Bay State correction system, the Pew report found. If we wish to continue to incarcerate people at this rate, we will have little choice but to build more prisons in Massachusetts, and fast.