In a typical week at the Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth, some 10 or 12 people complete their criminal sentences, step out of a brown metal door into a courtyard, wait for the chain-link gate to slide open, then walk out to resume life in the community. Where they go from there, and why, are central questions in the 2022 Bristol County Sheriff campaign.
Claims and counter-claims have been flying between the incumbent, Sheriff Thomas M. Hodgson, a Republican seeking a fifth six-year term, and the challenger, Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux. Heroux and his two opponents in the Democratic primary have insisted that Hodgson does a poor job running the House of Correction, as too many offenders end up back behind bars.
Fact is, though, nobody knows how many people released from Hodgson’s custody are convicted for new offenses within a certain number of years and then recorded as incidents of “recidivism.” Hodgson does not track that information for the Bristol County House of Correction, and the recidivism numbers that his Democratic rivals have cited as reflections on his performance are actually figures for inmates released from state prisons.
Even if the county recidivism numbers were known, complicated questions would remain: why do released inmates end up back in trouble? How much can prison officials do to keep inmates from coming back?
To follow this campaign, then to read criminology research and listen to people who work in the field and in re-entry programs for former inmates, is to be whipsawed by two very different impressions about “recidivism.”
The political rhetoric says recidivism statistics are a reliable measure of the performance of prison officials. Decades of research, and people who work in re-entry in Bristol County say: not.
Recidivism “is a very difficult thing to affect as a person who is running an institution,” said Natasha A. Frost, a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, specializing in punishment and social control. “We see studies over decades that it’s not easy to affect [recidivism] by anything done in the institution.”
Three people who work in inmates re-entry in Bristol County say much the same thing. While they support robust education and counseling programs behind the walls, they say that in determining how inmates fare after release, their experiences in the institution are not nearly as significant as their experiences outside — both before and after they were locked up.
Peter Kortright, who has run a re-entry program in Attleboro for six years, working with more than 1,500 former inmates, said, “we’ve always been frustrated that there’s never enough resources” in the Bristol County House of Correction. On the other hand, he said: “I don’t know what a county sheriff can do in a year-and-a-half, two years … The sources of (inmates’) behavior were baked in” from their life experience. “It’s not an easy job to figure that out.”
Paul Hodge, a retired Bristol County probation officer who also works in the Attleboro re-entry program, and Carl Alves, chief executive officer of Positive Action Against Chemical Addiction, or PAACA, in New Bedford, whose clients include many former inmates, agree that the prison experience is not the most significant factor in determining who succeeds in life after release.
“The main determinants are housing, income, health care, support systems” in the community, Alves said.
Frost said data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics for about 30 years starting in the 1980s found that about two-thirds of released inmates are arrested for new offenses and almost half return to prison. Studies suggest that the best prison programs could reduce recidivism by about 20%.
She said the challenge is particularly difficult for officials running a house of correction, where inmates serve relatively short sentences compared to state and federal prisons.
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That said, Frost is not recommending “warehousing” inmates. She said the institutions should still provide the programs, even if they’re not the factors that play the strongest hand in determining who stays out of trouble. That is, the programs could be helpful to someone who, when they leave prison, has the benefit of the key determining factors in getting life back on track: a place to live, a job, support of family or friends, follow-up medical care for struggles with mental illness or drug abuse.
The subject of “recidivism” is complex enough. The campaign rhetoric in the Bristol County Sheriff’s race has compounded the difficulty with a misleading turn.
The three Democratic candidates — including Heroux — misconstrued a standard report on recidivism issued every few years by the Massachusetts Department of Correction. They argued that those reports were tracking inmates released after serving sentences in the county House of Correction.
“There is a revolving door where 40% of offenders leave our jail only to end up back in again,” the Heroux campaign website said for months, until it was recently changed. “That cycle leaves us with more crime victims and more individuals who never get on track.”
The statistics Heroux quoted were from the most recent state report issued in 2020. That research on 2,411 inmates released in 2015 showed Bristol County with 40% recidivism, the worst of 11 counties that had high enough numbers of inmate releases to be considered statistically relevant.
Trouble is, the state agency that puts out the information says the reports do not track inmates who have been released from the house of correction in Bristol or any other county. They’re following inmates in the state prison system, who were released and then ended up back in prison within three years after being sentenced for a new offense or for violating parole or probation. That’s recidivism as defined for these reports. The rate is the number of people who end up sentenced again within three years, divided by the number of inmates released.
Elaine Driscoll, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, under which the Department of Correction operates, said the county designations refer to the addresses state prison inmates provide when they’re released, not to the jurisdiction where they served time.
The difference between serving time in a county house of correction or one of 15 institutions in the state prison system is the offense. Those sentenced to a house of correction have been convicted of offenses punishable by up to two-and-a-half years in prison, many on drug charges, assault and battery, larceny, driving offenses. Inmates serving state prison sentences have been convicted of more serious crimes.
Some sheriffs have studied recidivism for the institutions they run, said Carrie Hill, executive director of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association. Hodgson said he does not have the research staff to track recidivism from the Bristol County House of Correction.
At the moment, no statewide system exists for measuring recidivism from county houses of correction. A statewide tracking system is in the works under comprehensive criminal justice reform legislation adopted in 2018.
As a candidate, Heroux spotlights his master’s degree in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania, his experience working as director of research and planning for the Massachusetts Department of Correction and before that as assistant to the commissioner in the Philadelphia Department of Prisons. In an interview, he acknowledged that he thought the state reports on Bristol County recidivism refer to inmates released from the county House of Correction in North Dartmouth, not from state prisons.
“If that’s the case, those numbers don’t tell us anything about the jail” in Bristol County, he said. He later changed his campaign website, which now says: “Bristol County has the highest rate of recidivism (reoffending) in the state at 40% for people coming back from state prison.”
Rather than dropping the claim about recidivism, he’s shifted his argument. He’s saying Hodgson should be doing more to cultivate the support inmates need when they’re released from prison, regardless of where they served time.
“I just don’t see much evidence of that going on in Bristol County,” Heroux said in a text message to The Light. “A sheriff has the bully pulpit and that position of influence to help facilitate relationships. These relationships with different organizations in the community can help reduce recidivism.”
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Hodgson said the relatively high recidivism rate for state prison inmates saying they’re from Bristol County could have something to do with conditions in the county such as the prevalence of people struggling with substance abuse and poverty.
The sheriff said his department provides a robust array of programs meant to prepare inmates for good outcomes after they’re released. These include mental health and substance abuse counseling, vocational skill courses such as tractor-trailer driving and cooking, high-school equivalency, college credit courses and a program on being a better parent.
Hodgson has cultivated a tough reputation over the decades. Soon after taking office he removed televisions and exercise weights from the House of Correction, charged inmates a daily fee for haircuts, medical and educational expenses until a court stopped the practice, and sent inmates who he said had volunteered for the assignment out to do work in the community — while chained together at the ankles. His campaign website blares a simple slogan: “Tough on Crime.”
But, he said, “my job is not to punish people. It’s to give them life skills in their toolbox. We’re constantly looking at what are the needs of the inmates.”
At any given time, Hodgson holds hundreds of people in custody.
As of late September, Hodgson’s agency had custody of nearly 700 people at both the House of Correction in North Dartmouth and the Ash Street Jail in New Bedford. That included 460 people who were charged with a crime and awaiting trial, most of them in North Dartmouth, about 90 at Ash Street. Ash Street is chiefly for people who have been charged but not yet convicted or sentenced. Earlier in September, 232 people were serving sentences at the House of Correction.
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House of Correction sentences average six months to a year in Bristol County, but there are also people who serve only a month, according to the sheriff’s office. People awaiting trial can be held for a day or two to several years. Through the end of September this year, of 5,865 people held on charges but not sentenced, nearly 80 percent were released in one to 15 days.
Counseling and education programs are set up chiefly for inmates serving sentences at the House of Correction, but some programs, such as mental health and drug counseling, are also available to people awaiting trial.
By one account that appeared early this year, Bristol County is last in the state compared to other counties in spending per inmate on such programs.
The 46-page Report of the Special Commission on Correctional Funding, released in January, includes a chart showing that per-inmate spending in Bristol County on programs — meaning expenses related to preparing inmates to re-enter their community — was the lowest in the state at $1,097 in 2019. That was the most recent year for which numbers were available for the commission’s analysis.
The next lowest per-inmate program spending was nearly three times as high: Plymouth County at just over $3,000. Berkshire County was highest at $7,227.
The disparity is striking, but the report itself acknowledges that the comparison between one county and another is complicated by the fact that the counties use “vastly different reporting methods,” producing “inconsistent data and financial reporting on topics including programming, mental health spending, employee time allocations, among others.”
Benjamin Forman, who served on the 19-member commission created in 2020, said in an email that despite those difficulties, the program figures are meaningful.
“I think the program expenditure figures are relatively strong,” said Forman, research director for MassINC, a nonprofit public policy research organization based in Boston. “We asked the agencies to verify all of that staff activity and the contractual spending.”
He said the commission could not speak to the quality of the programs or differences in the need from one county to the next, “but I think we can say for certain that the agency [meaning the Bristol County Sheriff] is spending many multiples less than others on programs.”
State Sen. Will Brownsberger (D-Belmont), co-chair of the commission, was not so sure.
“I wouldn’t put too much reliance” on those numbers, Brownsberger said. “I’d be very reluctant to draw any specific inference from that data.”
Frost said she agrees with Forman: the exact numbers may not be right, but the comparison is relevant. It probably reflects “who is doing the most, and who is doing the least.”
Hodgson, who also served on the commission, pointed to the information variations noted by the panel. He dismissed Forman’s view as “opinion,” and said his department runs efficiently, trying to get the best value for the tax dollar, and is relatively low in both program and non-program spending.
They do more with less, he said, and keep their own books on inmates’ progress with programs. How any of this works in the lives of those people walking out that gate into the world is evidently not a question to be settled with one statistic.
Arthur Hirsch is a freelance writer and correspondent for The New Bedford Light.