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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Panel backs 6-part plan to reduce prison’s revolving door – at no cost

CONCORD – The ambitious plan to cut New Hampshire’s high rate of prison recidivism took an important step forward Monday but did so without spending state dollars on community treatment or drug testing.

An oversight committee of lawmakers, judges, law enforcement and human service officials unanimously endorsed six recommendations to try to reduce prison’s revolving door.

Currently, 51 percent of inmates within three years wind up back behind bars. Of that group, 85 percent commit a new crime or violate probation or parole terms within the first eight months of their release.

The committee supported a draft bill that embraces treatment and drug testing but has no money for it.

The state faces a deficit in the current budget of more than $60 million and an even bigger hole next year.

House and Senate leaders said it was proper to put off spending decisions until the spring of 2011.

“It would be up to the next Legislature that has to create the new state budget,” said Senate Majority Leader Maggie Hassan, D-Exeter.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick said that without spending money on treatment, these reforms would not work.

“This legislation, as dramatically as it saves money, it does not save lives, it does not protect public safety over the long term. It’s a good beginning,” Broderick said.

The Council on State Governments Justice Center’s report concludes these changes over five years would cut the State Prison population 20 percent.

The plan would shorten how long nonviolent offenders are supervised after they’re let out and would end up releasing some from jail into the community earlier.

It increases supervision of high-risk parolees and gives the state more options to cut costs and more aggressively deal with those who violate terms of parole or probation.

State corrections officials conclude cost savings will be small in the first two years, but over five years, it would cut costs $7.7 million.

The state’s corrections budget is $106 million a year.

The number of inmates would decline to 2,422 by 2015. This would be a 20 percent decline as the current prison population is 2,878.

The report recommended half of the savings should be spent on treatment and testing since most inmates suffer from abuse of alcohol or drugs or from a mental illness.

Corrections Assistant Commissioner William McGonagle proposed starting drug testing and state-financed treatment for high-risk offenders in 2012 and for medium-risk offenders starting in 2014.

Under this model, the state would spend a total of $6.7 million on testing and treatment by 2015 and this would achieve additional savings of $3 million over that time, he said.

The treatment and testing would further cut the prison population by another 122 inmates.

State Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, said it’s not an acceptable return on investment to spend more than twice the money on treatment as it saves in spending.

“I’m thinking of trying to sell this to my constituents,” Kurk said.

House Speaker Terie Norell, D-Portsmouth, said that year after year, lawmakers spend more money to house inmates for long mandatory sentences but spend no state money on treatment even though studies show it has proven results.

Joseph Diament, director of the Division of Community Corrections, said without treatment, any cut in recidivism would be temporary and public safety in the community would be at greater risk.

“If you don’t invest, you might as well not have done it in the first place,” Diament said.

CSG report co-author Marshall Clement said some savings from treatment and testing is not in the state budget but in county government since two-thirds of parole violators end up in county jails.

Attorney General Michael Delaney chairs the oversight panel and said local police and prosecutors urged the consultants to back up any reforms with treatment and drug testing.

“It’s of critical importance to have a holistic approach to this,” Delaney said.

The proposed bill requires release of nonviolent offenders after serving no more than 120 percent of their minimum sentence as long as they engaged in good behavior behind bars.

Supervision after that release would last only nine months for nonviolent offenders. It would be 18 months for felons released on probation but state prison officials could supervise for an unlimited time those offenders they classify as high risk.

In the future, all inmates would have to be released and supervised in the community at least nine months before the maximum length of their prison sentence. The study found 16 percent of inmates serve the maximum and go out into the community without any prior supervision.

A state Senate committee will take initial testimony on the draft bill Feb. 16 at 2 p.m.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com.