Editorial: Taxpayers will benefit from this spending
There’s little glory for politicians who wrestle with making improvements to state prisons. Convicts don’t garner much sympathy from the public, and spending money on inmates is rarely popular.
A pair of audits of the state corrections system, however, opens a door for Gov.-elect Maggie Hassan and the new Legislature to do right by the prisons and the taxpayers at the same time. It’s an opportunity they shouldn’t pass up.
The audits, presented this month by the Office of the Legislative Budget Assistant, described a prison system in which staffing shortages and inefficient management cost the state nearly $10 million in overtime payments for state workers between 2010 and 2012. In other words, what’s bad for the prisons is also costing taxpayers money unnecessarily.
Fixing this problem isn’t necessarily a piece of cake, of course. It will take the commitment of state budget-writers, corrections officials and the unions that represent prison workers. But the details suggest serious room for improvement.
According to the auditors, for instance, the number of corrections workers dropped 26 percent from 2001 to 2012, even as the inmate population increased 18 percent. The audit suggested that corrections officials should do a staffing analysis to determine how many workers it needs and how many should be assigned to specific jobs. Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn says such a study was conducted in 2004 but that lawmakers refused to act on the results, which would have meant hiring significantly more staff.
Additionally, the audits found that vacancies in existing staffing positions mean that the agency will pay out $4.9 million in overtime in the current fiscal year. Just filling all vacant jobs and managing the staff better could eliminate overtime at the prisons in Goffstown and Berlin and at the maximum security unit of the Concord prison.
Some of those vacancies, the auditors suggested, could be filled with part-timers, an option described as cheaper than paying existing staff overtime. Wrenn argues that hiring too many part-timers is counter-productive because of the time and resources necessary to train them.
The auditors also found opportunities for financial savings in the management of overtime: Too many highly-paid officers are collecting overtime at their own hourly rate while filling in for lesser-paid colleagues. And too many workers near retirement are working lots of overtime shifts to increase their retirement pay, which is based on their final three years of wages.
It stands to reason that inadequate staffing creates security risks at the state’s prisons. It forces the Corrections Department to offer fewer rehabilitative services to inmates, which in turn hurts efforts to reduce recidivism. It’s bad for staff morale.
But in addition to those troubles, the new audits show that penny-pinching has ended up costing the state money. Considering that the state is already facing a potentially costly lawsuit from female inmates who argue that they are denied the same education, training and treatment opportunities given to male inmates, stopping the waste is imperative.
When lawmakers convene in January, this issue should be near the top of their agenda.