In between 2011 and 2016, correctional spending was the fastest growing sector of Massachusetts’ budget. Although the average daily population in state and county correctional facilities throughout Massachusetts has dropped by 12% since 2011, the state’s correctional budget has grown by 18%. In between 2011 and 2016, spending on state and county correctional facilities also outpaced the growth rate of K-12 education spending. While Massachusetts has made strides forward, the state can do more to reduce the overall number of people cycling through jails and prisons—and the burden that places on taxpayers.
According to 2013 data, people with prior convictions account for three-quarters of new sentences imposed in a given year. Although this reflects a reduction in the state’s recidivism rate, Massachusetts still spends approximately $450 million annually re-incarcerating people. The high recidivism rate amongst returning citizens can be attributed to a number of factors, including the pervasive practice of sending people who back to their communities without post-release supervision. In 2014, only 27 percent of people leaving state custody did so on parole, compared to 80% in the 1980s. With fewer people being granted parole, judges have taken to including a term of probation in sentencing to ensure that people are subject to some form of post-release supervision. This has proven to be problematic, as probation standards are less flexible. This means that people on probation are more likely to return to prison for technical violations under probation than they would be under parole.
Massachusetts also has failed to reform some mandatory minimum statutes that require penalties for certain drug offenses and enhanced sentencing guidelines that force the hands of judges to escalate penalties based on prior criminal history. Polling has shown that Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly favor judicial discretion, regardless of political affiliation, with support for mandatory minimums creeping no higher than 15 percent.