ITEM PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger talks about this first three months in office.
By GAYLA CAWLEY
MIDDLETON — Former Lynn Police Chief Kevin Coppinger, settling into his new job as Essex County sheriff after being sworn in in January, is focusing on the budget and reducing the recidivism rate among inmates at the Essex County Correctional Facility.
The biggest issue right now is the budget, Coppinger said. The department has a projected $19 million deficit through June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. Out of the 14 sheriff’s departments in the state, he said Essex County is one of the four that have been traditionally underfunded and lives off supplemental budgets through the legislature.
Coppinger said his goal is to get the budget stabilized and fully funded as of July 1 each year. He said the budget cycle for FY18 is ongoing, but right now, the struggle is to come up with the $19 million to get through the rest of the fiscal year.
The sheriff said one of the reasons he ran, after 34 years as a cop, was because he wanted to see some change. He’s a third-generation police officer, who started off with the Lynnfield Police Department, before transferring to Lynn.
Coppinger said he often saw the same individuals arrested and brought back. He said it was a revolving wheel, and called the department’s 47 percent recidivism rate last year outrageous. He wants to see some changes, and plans on a program audit to look at all of the different programs in the department. The goal is to improve the programs for the inmates to address that cycle.
“When the inmates come in, the goal is when they are released, they’re released in better shape than when they came in,” Coppinger said. “Again, the long-term goal is that they don’t recidivate. So, somebody commits a crime, they get sentenced here — the average sentence is nine months. We want to make sure (when) they leave the door, they don’t come back.”
One of the department’s highlights, Coppinger said, is the detox program, which works closely with the courts, particularly the drug courts. There is a program for men and women, which includes 42 beds in each unit and 28-day programs. Other programs include anger management, GED for their high school equivalencies and work releases, he added.
The work program for inmates is through the pre-release center in Lawrence, better known as the farm. Coppinger said it’s getting to the point in the season where the sheriff’s department will do a lot more community service work, so inmate work crews will be sent to the municipalities and nonprofits if they want something done.
Coppinger said it also helps the department to send inmates to be released back into the communities to the pre-release center.
“They don’t just sit in a cell for nine months and then we open up the doors and they go home,” he said. “We put them through programs. They leave here and they go to Lawrence. They’re hopefully a work release. They come back at night. Some of them are on bracelets. Some of them are in our custody full-time. And then, you slowly get them acclimated to go back into community life. It’s a multi-faceted set of goals we have.”
Coppinger said the facilities for inmates in the department also operate on a risk-based system. For instance, those involved in the work release are not violent or career criminals, but low-risk inmates who may be serving time for motor vehicle violations or child support issues. With the detox programs, drug dealers would not be allowed in, but those charged with drug possession would.
He said there are also segregation cells for the hardcore criminals. Gang members have to be separated from each other. The key is classification, Coppinger said, and when the inmate comes in the door, the goal is to gather as much information on them as possible to get them into the right buildings and programs. In Middleton, where the sheriff’s office is located, there are 11 buildings for the jail.
A women’s facility is in Salisbury. Most women go to Framingham, including all those convicted of violent crimes, Coppinger said. There are 24 beds in Salisbury, he said, and when women can be held there for other, more minor offenses, they are.
The department also oversees offices of community correction in Lynn, Lawrence and Salisbury, Coppinger said.
Keeping inmates busy with programs keeps them productive, Coppinger said. By sending more productive members back into the community, he said it might lighten the load on law enforcement. There could be fewer calls to police, and they could better address other issues that need their attention. Reform is not a new philosophy, he said, but he and his staff are just bringing a new perspective.
“I just think I bring a little bit different perspective based on my law enforcement background,” Coppinger said. “I know what the root causes of crime are. I watched them for 30 odd years. You see what drives a lot of folks to crime. Hopefully, between these initiatives and working with the cities and towns and even in prevention mechanisms, we can make a dent. We’re certainly not going to completely eradicate crime. If we can knock down that recidivism rate, it’s all the better.”
Gayla Cawley can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.