Sending more people to prison and spending more on corrections hasn’t cut crime but has helped push Connecticut to huge state budget deficits, says a new report from the Connecticut Regional Institute for the 21st Century.

Turning to lower-cost and more effective alternatives to incarceration, says the report, could help restore fiscal responsibility without compromising public safety. The institute’s latest report in its “Framework for Connecticut’s Fiscal Future” identifies ways to streamline the state’s prison system to achieve an optimal balance of public safety, the cost of the system, and appropriate justice for criminal activity.

“This is an area long overlooked for comprehensive change to improve safety, outcomes and the state’s fiscal condition,” says CBIA economist and vice president Peter Gioia, a member of the institute’s steering committee.

“Serious reform would not only relieve significant pressure on the state budget but also would lead to better results for many of Connecticut’s nonviolent offenders.”

The state of the system

According to the institute, Connecticut’s corrections system is “one of the fastest-expanding segments of the state budget,” growing 280% since 1990.  Says the institute:

  • There are 18,555 people incarcerated in Connecticut
  • The annual corrections budget is more than $700 million, almost 5% of the overall state budget
  • About 70% of the average daily cost per inmate from 2008-2009 went to the pay and benefits of corrections employees

Obviously, prison costs are driven by the number of people who are sent there, and for 30 years America’s prison population has been increasing. In addition to the crime rate, however, public policy decisions—such as imposing mandatory sentencing and expanding what defines a crime—increasingly have become major factors in the rise of prison populations.

With most of Connecticut’s budget for corrections tied to staffing and long-term union contracts, prospects are slim for reducing that spending commitment.

“The only effective way to control this cost,” says the institute, “is to reduce the prison population.” Ironically, Connecticut’s prison population has been declining slightly for a variety of reasons, including more offenders being released into community supervision programs.

Connecticut and other states are finding out that treatment, community corrections programs, and rehabilitation work better and more cost-effectively than prison for many offenders. Probation, for example, costs much less than imprisonment, with an average daily per-client cost of $10.24.

The success of alternative programs should give Connecticut policymakers hope for spending less on corrections without fear of the crime rate rising.

“Clearly, a policy that appropriately reduces prison population through judicious use of parole, probation, and community-based transitional services will save money,” says the institute. But the institute cautions that alternative programs must be “carefully designed” to fit the nature of the prisoner’s crime and provide appropriate treatment. There is no simple formula for how each could reduce costs.

Greater efficiency

In Connecticut, two major components of state government--the State Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Judicial Branch--are responsible for the correction, probation, and parole systems. DOC handles prisons and Judicial oversees courts and probation.

Sounding a familiar theme, the institute said that better coordination between the state agencies would help the different parts of the corrections system work more effectively. “Issues such as [a lack of] cross-agency leadership, coordination and accountability, as well as inadequate information technology … are pervasive,” claims the institute. While Connecticut has taken strides to improve coordination between the two systems, “much more can still be done.”

Ways to Improve

Among the many recommendations cited in the institute’s report were:

  • Unify the oversight of the entire corrections system and install a comprehensive data system
  • Standardize risk-assessment tools for “better and more consistent decision-making”
  • Engage Connecticut businesses in helping offenders reenter the community
  • Renegotiate state personnel union contracts after benchmarking other states’ approaches
  • Establish a faith-based pilot program for incarcerated males to achieve “much lower recidivism rates”
  • Continue to build partnerships with community-based service providers to “provide critical support to offenders in the early hours after their release”

For more information about the study, contact CBIA’s Pete Gioia at 860.244.1945 or pete.gioia@cbia.com.