Prisons commish defends ‘gobsmacking’ costs during budget questioning

New Jersey’s prison population has fallen, but the cost of corrections has not

By: - April 19, 2023 5:59 pm

Victoria Kuhn, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, testifies before the Assembly’s budget committee on April 19, 2023, at the Statehouse in Trenton. (Photo courtesy of N.J. Assembly)

Criminal justice reformers in recent years have celebrated New Jersey’s plummeting prison population, the result of sentencing reforms, improved reentry services, and pandemic-related releases.

But the state’s correctional spending largely failed to follow the same nosedive, which put Department of Corrections Commissioner Victoria Kuhn in the hot seat Wednesday when an Assembly panel grilled her on her $1.2 billion state budget request for the coming fiscal year.

After Kuhn detailed her department’s needs, Assemblyman Brian Rumpf (R-Ocean) did some math. New Jersey’s prison population — now about 13,350 — fell by half in the past decade, Rumpf noted. Yet over the same time, the system’s per-person cost almost doubled, he added.

“Why aren’t we seeing a reduction in spending that goes along with that reduction in incarceration?” he said. “One of the frustrations, I’m sure for all of us and for the taxpayers, is school funding — and my district is losing $13.8 million as a result of enrollments going down. Meanwhile, we see the prison enrollment going down substantially, particularly during COVID, but the costs are going up.”

He added: “It would seem to me the reverse would be more appropriate.”

The pushback was bipartisan. Assemblyman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington) told Kuhn he found the trend “gobsmacking.”

“It’s just surprising that the cost per inmate is as high as it is,” Conaway said. “I’m very concerned to hear that those costs have doubled.”

That doubled cost comes even as the department reported other cost savings. The state saved $98 million by closing four prisons since 2020, and the department cut about 1,600 jobs in that same time period, according to testimony given at the Assembly’s budget committee.

Under the budget proposal, the prisons’ per-capita cost is $66,000, according to a budget document.

Lawmakers have until the end of June to finalize the state’s spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The Senate will consider the corrections department’s proposed budget Thursday.

Health care costs

It took nearly three hours for Kuhn to explain why the department’s operating budget remained largely static in recent years despite its dwindling census.

Skyrocketing prison health care costs largely were to blame, she said.

With a growing geriatric population, the prisons send more incarcerated people to long-term acute care hospitals for specialized care that prison infirmaries can’t provide, Kuhn said. Gov. Phil Murphy included $8.5 million in his total $53.1 billion state budget proposal to cover that cost.

Specialized needs also spiked health care costs, Kuhn said. The proportion of incarcerated people who need mental health services grew from 16% in 2005 to 23% last year, budget documents show. The system also spent nearly $500,000 in the past year on the medical needs of its transgender population, such as gender-affirming surgery and hormone replacement therapy. About 75 people in state prisons are transgender, the commissioner added.

Some operational costs — like the commissary, the mail room, and other services — continue from year to year, no matter how few people the system incarcerates, Kuhn added.

Ballooning overtime costs created another budgetary demand, she said.

Staff members have worked overtime to cover staffing shortages caused by both the pandemic and general hiring and retention challenges, she said. The department’s staff overtime more than doubled from $35.8 million in fiscal year 2019 to about $77 million in fiscal year 2022, budget documents show.

Wages rising

At the same time, the department is raising wages for both staff and incarcerated people, Kuhn said.

Incarcerated people must work while in prison, but their dismal daily pay — which ranges from $1 to $7 — hasn’t risen in decades.

Murphy included $2.6 million in his budget proposal to cover wage increases for incarcerated people. That is the same amount the system has saved in recent years as its prison population fell. The department paid incarcerated people $9.2 million in wages in fiscal year 2022, compared to $11.8 million in fiscal year 2018, budget documents show.

If approved, the pay for prison jobs would increase between 25 cents and a dollar per day, depending on the job, with a larger bump or commissary stipend for positive behavior, according to budget documents. The department also tweaked its policy to require officials to review wage rates every two years to ensure they’re “appropriate” in comparison with commissary and communication costs.

Hiking senior correctional officers’ pay 8% last year helped reduce attrition rates, she said.

And despite a steadily sinking prison population in recent years, the system now is seeing its numbers rise, Kuhn said.

About 100 more people a month are heading into New Jersey prisons, with officials projecting the total prison population will top 14,000 by the end of fiscal year 2024.

Kuhn attributed the growing census to a few trends — courts are catching up on pandemic-created backlogs; pandemic-related prison releases have ended; and tougher sentencing, especially for violent offenders, means fewer people are getting released from prison.

On Edna Mahan

Kuhn also faced many questions about the fate of the troubled Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, which state officials announced in June 2021 would close in the wake of a brutality and sex abuse scandal.

Last month, Murphy announced he would include $90 million in his budget proposal to close the crumbling prison and build a new one.

Wednesday, Kuhn clarified that the new facility would be a temporary one comprising modular units that will house 434 incarcerated women until a new permanent facility can be built.

A permanent prison will likely cost closer to $300 million and could take up to a decade to complete, Kuhn added.

About 350 women now are incarcerated at Edna Mahan, which officials have estimated would need $200 million in improvements to remain functional.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.