April 1st, 2010

New Hampshire studies cost of reducing the prison population

New Hampshire is one of the safest states in the country, boasting a property crime rate that is fourth lowest in the nation and a violent crime rate that is third lowest. The crime rates have stayed flat over the past eight years.

Yet, even with a stable crime rate, the state’s prison population increased by 31 percent in that same time period. This increase in population, married to the fact that the state is spending double what it spent on corrections eight years ago, has led to a major new study on the causes and solutions to the issue.

In June 2009, a major confluence of influential parties came together in the state, including representatives from all three branches of the state’s government and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, to study the issues and recommend policy changes that will reduce the prison population and associated costs.

“What’s remarkable in New Hampshire is the composition of this leadership team,” says Attorney General Michael A. Delaney. “This is really a public safety initiative. The leaders recognize that the best way to maintain our New Hampshire tradition of being one of the safest states in the nation is to address the recidivism rates and the growing costs.”

“It’s the odd convergence of good social and economic policy,” says Supreme Court Chief Justice John T. Broderick, Jr. “A lot of these people are interested in the project because they think social policy needs to deal with it and because the economy can’t afford not to deal with it.”

The work group, with technical assistance from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national non-profit organization that provides evidence-based advice to increase public safety, released the results of its study in January. What they found was that the increase in the prison population could be attributed to the fact that 57 percent of all prison admissions were because of parole and probation revocations. Admissions to prison for a new crime rose slightly in that time period, from 518 to 532.

Exacerbating, or perhaps even causing, the rise in the prison population is the fact that “the majority of individuals in jail and prison have either addiction or mental health disorders.” The study explained that national data showed that nearly 70 percent of those admitted to prison have a diagnosable addiction disorder and 17 percent have a serious mental illness. Further, 75 percent of prison revocations are because of violations of parole sentences because of drug or alcohol use.

In order to reduce the rates of prison recidivism by 20-40 percent and reduce costs, the study calls for a focus on supervision of high-risk offenders, shorter jail sentences and establishment of an intermediate sanction program in lieu of returning to prison and a parole revocation facility. The study also lists the need for a renewed investment in treatment, a minimum nine-month supervision program for anyone released from prison and a requirement that non-violent offenders serve no more than 120 percent of their minimum sentence.

Following the guidelines would reduce the prison population by nearly 20 percent over the next five years and reduce revocations from parole by 40 percent and probation by 20 percent in the same time period. The treatment and supervision programs would cost about 50 percent of the overall savings involved.

The next step for the work group will be to see the recommendations put into place. To that end, a bill introduced in the Senate by Sen. Sylvia Larsen (D-Concord), was recently introduced and is currently listed as in committee.

“Close to one out of 100 adults in the U.S. is behind bars,” says Broderick. “We incarcerate more people per person than any nation on earth. It used to be considered safer but people forget that the average stay is two to four years. Ninety-five percent of these people are coming back out. We have the following options: learn to deal with the problem when we have them as a literally captive audience or deal with training, mental illness issues and substance abuse problems at the community level. By not dealing with these problems, the odds of them coming back are exponentially higher.”

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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