Minutes from 12/20 Meeting

Special Commission on Correctional Funding Minutes
Monday, December 20, 2021
(virtual meeting)

Commissioners Present:

  • Chair William Brownsberger
  • Commission Michael Widmer
  • Commissioner Ben Forman
  • Commissioner Timothy Whelan
  • Commissioner James Cowdell
  • Commissioner Kevin Coppinger
  • Commissioner Thomas Hodgson
  • Commissioner Ed Dolan
  • Commissioner James Morton
  • Commissioner Kevin Keefe
  • Commissioner Gerard Horgan
  • Commissioner Michael Ashe
  • Commissioner Thomas Preston

Commissioners Absent:

  • Chair Michael Day
  • Commissioner Ryan Fattman
  • Commissioner Emi Joy
  • Commissioner Kate Cook
  • Commissioner Christina Crowley
  • Commissioner Francesca Spina

Chair Brownsberger welcomed a motion to approve minutes from the December 3, 2021, meeting. Commissioner Widmer moved and Commissioner Ashe seconded. Roll call was taken with all present members approving said minutes.

Chair Brownsberger acknowledged that this meeting is a turning point in the Commission and thanked all individuals who have assembled information for the Commission to date, all of which have been completed and disclosed on the website unless otherwise specified.

Chair Brownsberger turned the conversation to review the list of key questions that he and Chair Day compiled for further discussion and contemplation.

Chair Brownsberger began with the question: “Is it possible to define a funding formula for the department of correction and each sheriff’s department based, in part, on the number of people in their custody and control and the utilization of best practices in recidivism reduction to safely reduce the population of incarcerated people?” Sheriff Hodgson said that he believes this is a primary challenge based on design of facilities and mental health demographics of different regions in the state. Michael Widmer agreed that creating a formula would be nearly impossible, but the Commission should be able to offer insight into funding levels and its relationship to the number of people in the system. Representative Whelan said that if the Commission focuses exclusively on the number of people in custody, that will exclude regional services that sheriffs offer, like canine units and boat patrol in Barnstable County. Sheriff Hodgson echoed these concerns and stressed that sheriffs have local relationships that allow them to offer cost savings programming. Gerard Horgan added that the decrease in custody populations across the state means that individuals still in the system are the inmates with the largest needs which is more labor intensive. Work done on the Chapter 69 Matrices illustrate that an additional $40 million will be needed next year to meet the mandates created by Chapter 69 and thus the equation is more complex than the number of inmates in custody alone. Michael Widmer agreed that it is complicated, that funding cannot be tied only to inmate numbers, and that the Commission must also discuss the implications of the declining inmate populations across the state. Thomas Preston said that even though there is a declining number of inmates in the system, there are many individuals not in custody who are awaiting trial and will ultimately end up in state custody. Sheriff Coppinger highlighted that the inmate population did drop due to COVID, though they are coming back up, and that there is an older inmate population which is more expensive. He also brought up local lockups that Sheriffs provide for local PDs. Additionally, even though populations are decreasing, the number of units open dictates the number of COs needed to staff any given unit. Classifying inmates and separating inmates who may be rivals or pose security threats if housed together also complicate this issue. Sheriff Ashe noted that sheriffs provide unique programming and believes that targeted services should be part of the discussion as well. Recidivism rates are an important statistic to consider. Sheriff Hodgson brought up the issue of retaining COs, as well as the continued complications created by COVID.

Chair Brownsberger brought up data that Ben and Emi compiled. When comparing care and custody operational costs per inmate versus average daily supervisory population (ADSP), there are huge discrepancies across the state, with Essex and Bristol counties having some of the lowest in the state at ~$50,000, whereas other places like Middlesex are up at $90,000. Chair Brownsberger noted that these numbers exclude all other programming that sheriffs offer, including regional services, and these discrepancies cannot be explained by scale alone. Chair Brownsberger specified that he does not believe in just cutting costs and asked if Commissioners could provide insights into why there are such large discrepancies. Representative Whelan said that the cost of living could be a difference. Chair Brownsberger said the cost of living is still relatively high in other areas of the state, and that Dukes County is an outlier to the data given its small size. The cost of living is a factor, but not the only factor. Jimmy Cowdell asked if these discrepancies have anything to do with counties that used to be part of the county system. Jimmy asked if the counties that have higher cost per inmates spending are the counties that used to be in the county system.  Chair Brownsberger said that the Commission could look into this further.

Sheriff Hodgson said that there have been historic differences in inequities, which related back to when sheriff offices were funded on the county level. He also specified that there were four sheriff agencies that were not made whole when they were brought onto the state system. Chair Brownsberger asked which departments he was referring to in addition to Bristol. Sheriff Hodgson could not remember. Sheriff Coppinger believed it was Essex, Bristol, Worcester, and Plymouth counties; these counties have never been fully funded in the budget and have relied on supplemental budgets to make them whole. Sheriff Coppinger began with a $18 million deficit and was told that this was because of the way these departments were onboarded into the state system. Though Essex County always got needed funding through supplemental budgets, budgeting on a deficit is challenging. Sheriff Hodgson reiterated that concern, along with the fact that each budget does not take into account the supplemental budgets from the prior years that were necessary to cover costs. Chair Brownsberger said that this is a valid point, and there are certain accounts that the Legislature underfunds which are then given money through supplemental budgets, though the numbers that Ben and Emi pulled include supplemental funds and reflect actual spending. Ben Forman said that state policy, not COVID, has brought inmate populations down significantly over the last decade, which creates the question of what the state should do with those extra funds. There are increases in healthcare spending, which is a good thing. However, there are still huge discrepancies in programming; evidence-based programming has certain components that should make the costs similar across counties. Tom Preston said that population is down due to COVID because of the backlog of cases awaiting trial. Ben Forman agreed but pointed out that the Commission was created prior to COVID. Representative Whelan said that after COVID, county jails will see increases in population. He reiterated that cost of living differences across regions account for some disparities. Chair Brownsberger stated that he would pull data on how regional cost of living differences compare to compensation levels for sheriffs’ compensation levels county by county.

Tom Preston asked if age of population relates to healthcare costs. Chair Brownsberger asked if the sheriffs have median age or individuals over 50 in each county to consider.

Kevin Keefe asked if there is a way to determine minimum cost to keep doors open, when considering smaller population counties.

Sheriff Ashe expressed his appreciation for the Commission, the work the MSA and Sheriffs are doing to professionalize their facilities, and the work that the Sheriffs and DOC are doing to decrease recidivism across the state.

Chair Brownsberger asked if it is possible that some of the variations in cost could be due in part to the number of clinicians on staff. Sheriff Ashe said that this possible, and that the Commission can be a place to highlight best practices amongst Sheriffs that could be used to create a formula that the Sheriffs can strive to achieve. Ben Forman said that this is clear in the data he collected. Ed Dolan said that he expected mental health and substance use data to have normal variations across counties. However, the results from the programming data that Carrie helped compile found huge discrepancies in mental illness diagnosis data, from one county reporting 17% to another reporting 85%. This highlights a lack of consistent definitions across counties. This also raises a question of if there should be a standard of care and if so, how much it would cost. Ed Dolan continued by noting that it was hard to pin down what services were for substance use and mental health, as well as what is evidence-based programming, from the data collected. There is huge variability in the data, but it is hard to explain based on the data provided.

Sheriff Coppinger expressed concern that individuals with serious mental health issues continue to enter jail where they are treated, though these issues should be caught before they end up in the criminal justice system. Ed Dolan agreed that many individuals who end up in the jail system are those with mental health needs who are not in being properly engaged with community-based services and have decompensated. Chair Brownsberger asked Ed Dolan what other takeaways the data showed about mental health. Ed Dolan said there was similar variability in mental health diagnoses as substance use. One takeaway from discrepancies in data, in which one county reported 16% with mental illness diagnoses and another with 90%, is that there is no standard of intake across sheriff facilities for intake or mental health diagnoses. Ed Dolan agreed that budgets should be based on inmate needs and a set of assumptions, as opposed to the historical figures that is currently used. Ultimately, it was hard to determine the assumptions that different sheriff agencies used when producing this programming data. James Morton agreed that there was great programming included, but it was hard to tell what programming was for mental health, substance use, or neither. There did not seem to be one tool that each sheriff uses to evaluate mental health needs, but this could be a recommendation of the Commission. Carrie Hill said that each sheriff has to be accredited by one of two agencies – NCCHC or ACA – and they must use specific forms during intake that speak to substance use and mental health needs as part of their accreditation. Carrie offered to send this to the subcommittee, and Tom Preston agreed to send the DOC’s intake forms. Chair Brownsberger said that these wide discrepancies mean that there is a lack of consistent intake amongst the sheriffs, especially as every academic study would put mental health and substance use at over 50% in all prisons and jails. Chair Brownsberger acknowledged that these discrepancies could be due to variability in application of measurements or in definition. Ed Dolan said that there was a lack of data about clinical diagnoses, so it does not seem that every individual gets to see a clinician during intake. Sheriff Ashe said that the closure of mental health facilities has led to many individuals who would be in those facilities now ending up in jails. Sheriff Ashe reiterated a desire to create best practices from this Commission. Ben Forman said that this Commission process has highlighted how difficult it was to capture data and that in the future he hopes there is a process for continually collecting this information across agencies.

Chair Brownsberger moved past questions 1 and 2, opening the table to question 3: “Does the NIC Staffing Analysis offer a way forward (a) as a future recommendation for all correctional facilities in the Commonwealth? (b) as a current method for setting recommended spending levels in the facilities we have examined? To what extent was the analysis implemented in a consistent way?”. Chair Brownsberger said that the staffing analysis was instructive, and he was glad they did it. Tom Preston echoed that the staffing analyses were done to determine why costs continue to rise as populations decline, and the analyses speak to infrastructural costs and costs related to PTO and sick time. Sheriff Coppinger said there have been historical staffing analyses that did not go anywhere, and that this was a way to create best practices for staffing analyses. Carrie Hill agreed that this was a beneficial opportunity for the agencies. NIC will be finishing the full staffing analyses for each agency, as well as training all other agencies to conduct full staffing analyses.

Chair Brownsberger asked question 4: “If we cannot recommend spending levels, can we at least define stronger more standardized reporting requirements for budgeting committees? What would actually be helpful? A. inmate population details? B. programming details? C. post analysis and relief factors to define staffing levels?”. Chair Brownsberger said that the Commission should consider stronger standardized reporting. Ben Forman said that standardized reporting should include a comprehensive list of all non-custody and care expenditures so the public can see how these budgets compare to regional budgets, using costs for elder programming in a sheriff’s budget compared to how much the region receives for Councils on Aging as an example. Jimmy Cowdell suggested recidivism data being collected. Sheriff Ashe expressed recidivism data as important. He also expressed appreciation for staffing analyses highlighting that programming goes hand in hand with both custody and with recidivism rates. Chair Brownsberger asked if recidivism can be defined in a consistent way, and if the sheriffs believe this is collectible data. He asked if sheriffs can feasibly collect this data. Sheriff Coppinger said that the sheriffs do not have a uniform definition for recidivism data and that collecting data on recidivism outside of the state would be difficult. Carrie Hill has created a one-pager for a standardized recidivism definition and report, which is in process to be implemented.

Chair Brownsberger moved onto question 5: “Is it valid from an accounting standpoint to distinguish care and custody from programming expenses?” Chair Brownsberger pointed out that any program you run creates care and custody costs by moving inmates. Additionally, in some facilities, the COs have case management/Social Work training, which might complicate the programming costs. Sheriff Coppinger suggested looking at how much money is put into inmate services as well as individual budgets dedicated to inmate services, including programming. Chair Brownsberger specified that he was asking if it was fair to cut out these programming costs. Michael Widmer said that the more costs are broken down, the harder it is to apply conclusions.

Chair Brownsberger moved to question 6: “Is it feasible and advisable to establish ‘distinct line items for the department of correction and each sheriff’s department to identify funding specifically designated for (i) fixed costs and payroll spending on care and custody personnel; (ii) recidivism reduction programming; and (iii) any other separate categories as may be identified by the commission’?” Ben Forman said that originally he thought distinct line items would be advisable, but after getting into the data and seeing how complicated it is, a better approach might be to have a grant program through DPH to fund evidence-based programming with a responsibility for program evaluation. Sheriff Coppinger said that there are so many pieces that go towards reducing recidivism, he does not think there are ways to further break down line items. Tom Preston reiterated this concern. Sheriff Hodgson agreed that it would be hard to isolate each line-item spending and break out care and custody pieces. Michael Widmer said that this relates to the earlier standardized reporting question, which is desirable and would help policymakers understand where the money is going and how programming is reducing recidivism. Ben Forman said that DPH does have a standard of care related to health spending, and the Commission could ask DPH to use that standard of care to examine each agency’s mental health spending.

Chair Brownsberger moved to question 7: “How should the Commission view non-correctional activities by sheriffs – how should the mission of sheriffs be defined?” Representative Whelan emphasized that he did not think that a cookie-cutter approach should be implemented due to the variations across counties and what citizens in a county expect their sheriffs to do. Sheriff Ashe agreed and said there is a piece of electability for sheriffs and that a cookie-cutter approach would be inappropriate. Sheriff Ashe also expressed desire to continue the best-practices being implemented beyond the Commission. Sheriff Hodgson expressed that the sheriffs are elected officials and are elected by the people as an all-encompassing job. He expressed sheriff ability to collaborate on the municipal and federal levels to provide for their communities. Sheriff Coppinger said that he agreed with Sheriff Hodgson’s comments and added that with police reform, there may be additional roles that the sheriffs are asked to fill.

Chair Brownsberger moved to question 8: “Should the commission endeavor to compare compensation levels across the sheriffs? How does the mix of professionals vary across facilities?” Chair Brownsberger reiterated that he would look at compensation levels through the CTHRU system.

Chair Brownsberger moved to question 9: “Variations in scale and capacity utilization drive variation of per inmate costs. Should the commission consider low scale and/or low utilization as problems to be solved through altered governance or increased exchange of prisoners?” Chair Brownsberger asked if we should be breaking down barriers between DOC and Sheriffs and across Sheriffs to utilize capacity. Sheriff Hodgson said that the sheriffs are already doing this and brought up that each sheriff is elected by the people for the purposes of running a facility for care and custody, as well as public safety. He reiterated that the sheriffs’ role is to do everything they can to help reduce recidivism. Sheriff Ashe said that DOC and the Sheriffs can and do work together to help reintegrate the inmate back to the community, even after serving time in DOC. Sheriff Ashe wants the Commission to investigate how DOC and the Sheriffs can better work together to reintegrate individuals back into the community. Chair Brownsberger raised the question of if timeline for sentenced populations being 2.5 years makes sense or if it should be re-examined in this process, as well. The statutes could be rewritten to give more individuals to either DOC or to the sheriffs.

Chair Brownsberger reiterated that conversations will continue and that no conclusions have yet been drawn. The next meeting will be a public hearing, which will take place on January 4th at 10AM.