Excellent piece of reporting by Maureen Hayden, writing for CNHI. She has an article entitled “prison officials say lighter sentences aren’t saving money.” Sentencing reform has reduced DOC sentences by 17%. However, the Department of Corrections says this isn’t saving any money. That 17% represents offenders who would have been incarcerated in a DOC facility under the old sentencing law but, under the new law, are serving time either in a county jail or through a county community corrections program. One premise of the new sentencing was that it was less costly to have offenders serve time in local facilities or programs and that the cost savings at DOC could be used to compensate the locals for the extra burdens. But, pursuant to a required report, the DOC says no extra money can be cut from its budget despite having 5,000 fewer inmates.
DOC says that costs are up $400,000 through six months. The state pays $35 per day to house a low level offender in a county jail compared to, the DOC says, $10 per day in a state facility. Senator Steele who chaired the Senate’s judiciary committee thinks these numbers are bogus. “Two years ago, when Correction Department officials asked lawmakers for money, they reported it cost about $60 a day to house a state prisoner.” Reading Hayden’s report, there seems to be a suspicion that DOC is getting creative with its numbers because it doesn’t want to give up money.
Corrections officials don’t see it that way. The department’s legislative director, Jon Ferguson, said the $10-a-day rate used in the report is a “marginal per diem” that doesn’t include the fixed, operational costs associated with running big prisons. And the number of those prison facilities the state operates hasn’t gone down since the sentencing reform law was put into place.
This is troublesome because — while part of the rationale for reform was that keeping offenders close to home was better for communities and reform prospects — a big part of the rationale was that keeping offenders out of state facilities would result in cost savings.