What our corrections system isn’t telling us

Posted Nov. 03, 2010, at 7 p.m.

In an Oct. 21 column, Neale Duffett, the chair of the State Board of Corrections, accuses Envision Maine’s report “Reinventing Maine Government” of identifying a level of savings in Maine’s correctional system that is unrealistic. He also claims that $15 million has been saved in corrections over the past three years, that is, about $5 million annually. This is a small fraction of the $100 million per year in cost reductions in corrections called for in the Envision Maine report.

What he didn’t tell us is that in fiscal year 2007, the latest year of data available for the Envision Maine report and before the small cost reductions over the past three years, Maine’s state government spending on corrections measured against the number of state prison inmates was the second highest among the 50 states and almost double the national average.

That’s not a typo. Double the national average.

Don’t believe it? That’s OK. Those involved in corrections in Maine evidently haven’t been believing it, or perhaps just plain denying it, for years.

A report from the U.S. Department of Justice showed that in FY 2001 Maine had the nation’s highest state cost per prisoner and was 96 percent above the national average. A report from the Brookings Institution commissioned by GrowSmart Maine indicated that in FY 2002 Maine had the nation’s second-highest corrections expenditure per inmate, 94 percent above the national average.

Maine state government spending on corrections measured against the number of state prison inmates was again the nation’s second highest and 93 percent higher than the national average in FY 2007. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Governments Division, Maine state government spent $130 million on correctional services. Maine local governments spent another $68 million on corrections.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Maine averaged 2,123 state prison inmates over this period. Dividing $130 million by 2,123 gives a state corrections cost of $61,258 per inmate. A similar calculation for the nation yields $31,695 per inmate.

Moreover, the main reason that Maine spends such a disproportionate amount on corrections is very clear. Maine had the nation’s second-highest number of state employees and payroll in corrections per state prison inmate. In full-time-equivalent employees per prisoner, Maine exceeded the national average by 92 percent in FY 2007, and in payroll per prisoner Maine was exactly double the national average.

Maine had 1,302 full-time-equivalent state government employees in corrections that year, meaning there were 1.63 prison inmates per FTE employee. That figure nationally is 3.12.

Although we might not have “a fox guarding the henhouse,” Maine certainly does have unusually high numbers of guards for our proverbial henhouse.

I applaud Mr. Duffett and the State Board of Corrections for trying to save taxpayer money. But their goal for cost reductions should not be just a few percent and a few million per year. Our roughly $200 million in prison costs need to be halved just to reach the national average. Doing only as good as what the rest of the nation is doing hardly seems unrealistic.

Philip Trostel is a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine. He is an author of the “Reinventing Maine Government” report for Envision Maine.

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