The Cost of Incarceration
By Nikki A. Sambitsky and Matthew Liggio
How Connecticut Residents are Working to Control an Inflated Corrections Budget
The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country does. A staggering 2.3 million Americans were in the prison system as of 2008 – 766 out of every 100,000 people in this country – and that number has steadily increased with passing years. Connecticut alone has around 16,600 people currently incarcerated in state prisons daily, a number that actually reflects one of the few state declines in population across the country in recent years. On balance, however, incarceration has climbed since the 1980s when a number of tough-on-crime policies led to a dramatic increase in not only the inmate population, but also corrections spending. According to a 2010 BlumShapiro study, spending on corrections in Connecticut has increased from $188 million in 1990 to more than $700 million in 2010, a 372% increase in just twenty years.
President and Chief Executive Officer of UIL Holdings Corporation and United Illuminating, James Torgerson, is one of many advocates working to address these problems in our prison system. One of his roles as Chair for the Connecticut Institute for the 21st Century (The Institute) is to lead studies aimed at finding ways for the state to fund the criminal justice system more efficiently. At a recent conference hosted by the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy (IMRP), Torgerson stated, “The studies show nationally that the costs are tied to the size of the incarcerated population. The guards and the workers in prisons drive most of the cost.”
Like all state workers, Department of Corrections (DOC) employees are unionized and, in addition to salaries, usually receive pensions and
a range of benefits including healthcare, overtime, and hazardous duty pay. The Institute suggested that union contracts be renegotiated for cost effectiveness, but these contracts have been frozen ever since Governor Malloy made changes to them a few years ago. In light of this reality, Torgerson says that Connecticut should be taking a close look at faith and character-based programs as a way to limit prison populations in the short term and prevent recidivism down the road. “Treatment, reentry plans, rehabilitation, and community programs are all less expensive and more effective than incarceration,” he said. A 2013 study conducted by the VERA Institute for Justice found that treating behavioral disorders in the community cost only about half as much as in prison. Diversionary programs frequently offer a positive environment for treatment and can also negate the need for lengthy judicial proceedings and other costs associated with incarceration.
Torgerson believes that in reducing the number of inmates, some prisons can either be closed entirely or partially to limit the amount of overtime of corrections personnel. “Clearly, policies that reduce the prison population through parole, probation and community-based transitional services will save money for the state,” he said. “More discretionary release programs are available than before. We are moving in the right direction.” Over the past 5 years Connecticut has had some success at . In June of 2011, Gates Correctional Institution closed its doors followed two months later Bergin Correctional Institution. The DOC was able to transfer inmates from the two facilities thanks to a 10-year low in the state’s prison population.
Torgerson noted that the decline was due to several factors including an increase in the number of offenders released to guided supervision and the efficiency of pretrial evaluation programs. Although there has been some public concern that the closures may leave nowhere to house potentially dangerous criminals, Torgerson is not convinced. “Many people in prison are in for drug use or some very minor reason that has mandatory sentencing requirements. Some of these people are not really a threat to society and are better off being back in their communities.” For low-risk offenders incarceration is not only more costly, but it often puts them in contact with inmates serving time for more serious offenses. Community-based corrections does just the opposite: offenders are able to interact with family, friends, and other positive influences.
This and other measures represent significant progress for Connecticut and Torgerson is optimistic that positive changes will continue in the future. In 2010, the Connecticut Sentencing Commission (CSC) was established under the umbrella of the Office of Policy and Management and has been actively working to address problems in the criminal justice system. For the last four years the CSC has been evaluating existing and proposed policies within the criminal justice system and making recommendations to the governor, legislature, and criminal justice agencies. The 23-member commission is made up of business people, educators, policy advocates, as well as those in the criminal justice field. The varied backgrounds’ of those serving on the CSC allow for a range of perspectives and ideas that represent the various interests of those living in Connecticut.
Peter Gioia of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association (CBIA) is one member of the Connecticut Sentencing Commission who would like to see a more pragmatic and cost-effective approach to corrections. He says that despite the progress, more still needs to be done. “One of the reasons that I became involved (with the Sentencing Commission) is because we really need to review sentencing guidelines, particularly for first-time, non-violent offenders,” he told me. Like many business owners in Connecticut, Gioia has expressed concern about the growth in public spending in the prison system and has characterized the corrections budget as particularly wasteful. “In the last 35 years we have built prison after prison, expanded the state workforce, and in doing so spent an enormous amount of state money,” he said. “This increase in corrections spending has come as funding for other public services – including education and healthcare – has declined. It’s bad public policy, it’s bad spending. This money could be better used in other areas of the budget or in tax relief.”
Like Torgerson, Gioia believes that the best way to cut correctional spending is to reduce the prison population and agrees that community-based corrections are a good solution. Community based corrections provides alternatives for low-risk offenders which are frequently less expensive than incarceration. These may include rehabilitation programs and counseling, electronic monitoring, and mandatory meetings with a corrections officer to discuss an offender’s daily activities and employment progress. For those sentenced to prison, Gioia says that planning is critical. “There needs to be significant psychological assessment to plan for re-entry from the time a person is sentenced. We have to make sure that the problems which led to their arrest are fixed by the time they get out.” In doing this, the system can work more effectively to reform these offenders and provide them every opportunity to avoid re-entry once released back into society.
Upon release, former inmates will be faced with the challenge of finding a job. To help them make a smooth transition back into the workforce, The Institute has been actively involved in engaging Connecticut employers and encouraging them to have a look at former inmates. “It’s now up to the business community to be open to hiring people like that,” said Torgerson. Gioia agrees, noting that without legitimate job opportunities for released inmates, recidivism will continue to be a nagging problem. “We need companies that are willing to take a chance on these people,” but admits that, “it’s a tough sell.” One of the biggest obstacles is that many companies are nervous about being sued for negligent hiring in the event that an ex-offender comes on board and something goes wrong. “If companies didn’t have the threat of potential lawsuits hanging over their head, they could take a lot more risk,” he said. Gioia has suggested that by releasing companies from this liability would be a practical and effective step towards encouraging the hire of ex-offenders.
While there have certainly been successes, true reform will require coordinated action from multiple groups and individuals across Connecticut. Only when the legal system, select agencies, and the community sit down and work together as a whole can we change our approach to corrections and cut the costs of incarceration. Nonprofits like the IMRP and The Connecticut Institute for the 21st Century along with outspoken community members like Torgerson and Gioia have come together and spoken out publically in hopes of educating the general population about specific changes that need to be made to the prison system. These changes need to focus on reducing excess spending and
allowing for successful reentry of former inmates into the workforce. The people working to affect these changes know that it won’t be easy or immediate, but remain committed to continuing their efforts. “We’ve been doing this the wrong way for a long time,” said Gioia. “It’s about time that we get our resources directed at doing it the right way.”