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Behind bars: the state of New Hampshire’s rising prison population

  • Crime rates

    Crime rates

  • Crime rates

Over the past two decades, New Hampshire’s population has grown at a modest clip, expanding by just under a fifth since 1990.

Its prison population, meanwhile, has more than doubled.

To date, there are nearly 2,800 men and women locked inside the state’s correctional facilities. That’s down slightly from five years ago, when the population peaked just shy of 3,000 inmates, but it’s also up from last year, and the year before that. And with a new, larger women’s prison set to open in 2016, and the crime rate having inched up in recent years, there are few signs the upward march is about to slow.

And that’s a problem, according to some law enforcement officials and criminal justice advocates, who argue it’s time the state retool its approach to mass incarceration.

“I think across the country you’ve seen a crackdown on every level – increased arrests, increased sentencing – and I think there are some real opportunities to re-examine our approach to criminal justice,” said Devon Chaffee, executive director of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union.

That echoes recent calls by several U.S. officials, including and most prominently U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who point to record-low crime rates, overcrowded prisons and swelling correctional budgets as clear signs of a need for reform. Last month, as part of a sweeping policy shift, Holder announced that, in future federal drug cases, low-level and nonviolent offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations will no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences. He proposed a push to reduce sentences for elderly and nonviolent inmates, and to find alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals.

This last week, Holder continued the campaign, saying in a speech Thursday that he had directed U.S. attorneys to review and consider reducing previously filed charges in ongoing cases involving low-level, nonviolent offenders.

“Too many people go to too many prisons for far too long – and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” he said.

A snapshot

Since the 1970s, the prison population in New Hampshire has risen ninefold, while the overall crime rate has dropped by more than a third. Here’s an overview of how those trends, and others related to them, have played out in recent years.

∎ In 2011, the state had the second highest percentage of inmates over age 50, at 19.8 percent, according to a report published last year by the American Civil Liberties Union. The highest was West Virginia, at 20 percent.

∎ Between 2011 and 2012, the population of sentenced inmates in New Hampshire grew by 6.73 percent – the largest single increase in the country, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice.

∎ It costs about $96 per day to house an inmate in New Hampshire, according to Department of Corrections spokesman Jeff Lyons. That’s $35,000 per year, or, based on the current population, roughly $98 million per year.

∎ The prison budget allocated by the state for the 2014-15 biennium is $202.5 million, according to Lyons. That’s $15 million less than the previous biennium budget, as it was originally authorized (the Department of Corrections was eventually directed to cut $13 million from the back of the budget).

∎ The crime rate in New Hampshire fell drastically between 1990 and 2011, from 3,645 to 2,472 per 100,000 residents, according to The Disaster Center, which culls U.S. crime data. That represents a rise, however, from a low of 2,013 in 2006. (The total number of crimes committed in the state fell between 1990 and 2011 from 40,435 to 32,584, hitting a low point of 25,466 in 2006.)

∎ Violent crime, meanwhile, increased between 1990 and 2011, from 132 to 188 per 100,000 residents, though that remains one of the lowest violent crime rates in the country.

∎ Of the 1,147 state offenders released in 2008, 495, or 43.2 percent, returned to prison over the following three years. Of that, 48 percent returned on new charges and 44 percent for parole violations.

‘Family affair’

A rising prison population has both immediate and longer-lasting implications, experts say. Overcrowding is apparent at the state prison in Concord, which houses roughly 1,450 prisoners in a space built for 1,200, and where men are sleeping in common spaces and cells are often filled to twice their intended capacity.

“Space is becoming more and more of a challenge,” Lyons said this week.

The size of the security staff has not grown with the inmate population, Lyons added. In fact, it has dipped from a high of about 400 correctional officers to a relatively stable current rate of some 350, he said.

And with a larger percentage of elderly inmates, medical costs are consuming an increasing chunk – 12 percent, said Lyons – of the total corrections budget.

The trend also influences future generations, according to Kristina Toth, who directs the Family Connections Center, a nonprofit that helps inmates in New Hampshire connect with their children and other family members.

New Hampshire does not track how many inmates have children, Toth said, but according to a 2010 Pew Charitable Trusts report, 54 percent of criminals imprisoned in the U.S. have children under age 18.

Toth said studies are mixed on whether having an incarcerated parent makes children more susceptible to criminal behavior later in life, but she said several of the prisoners she has come in contact with over the years have had relatives who have served time.

“It’s a family affair,” she said.

Breeding ground

One reason cited frequently for incarceration growth is rising statewide substance abuse. Illicit drugs are more potent, cheaper and readily available than ever, law enforcement officials say, and addiction often spawns other criminal activity, including theft and burglary, as well as more violent offenses.

“The one piece of this puzzle that keeps things consistent is the level of addiction and the fact that people are doing what they can to feed this habit,” said Merrimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard.

Merrimack County Attorney General Scott Murray said the majority of indictments flowing out of his office now deal with drug or drug-related crimes. And according to Lyons, between 80 and 85 percent of state prisoners have some sort of substance abuse issue.

“The biggest issue this state has to deal with is opiate use and drug use,” state Attorney General Joe Foster said.

It’s not just drugs, either. As much as 45 percent of prisoners suffer from mental illness, Lyons said.

Brooke Belanger, managing attorney at the New Hampshire Public Defender’s office, said the problem is a long-standing shortage of affordable, intensive treatment options for addicts and people with mental illness. Those that do exist, she said, rarely accept people battling both mental illness and addiction.

That, coupled with a dearth of year-round homeless shelters, make increased crime and overcrowded prisons an almost inevitable conclusion, Belanger said.

“From what I’ve seen, people aren’t getting the support they need to succeed in the community,” she said.

Murray reiterated that point, and emphasized the need to focus on early prevention for young and low-level offenders, because those, he said, are who, if untreated, frequently re-offend later on and to worse extent. Tossing money into public treatment and prevention programs may be costly in the short run, Murray said, but it could save big later.

“I think in the end we’re either going to pay to incarcerate those people or we’re going to pay to deal with them outside the prison,” he said.

But treatment options inside the prisons are also lacking, Belanger said. Currently, there are three substance abuse counselors divided among the four prisons (Lyons said the department recently lost three counselors through attrition and plans to fill their vacancies over the next several months).

And parole officers are grossly overburdened, Murray said.

“I think they do a good job with the resources they have,” he said. “But they don’t have the resources they need.”

Corrected

New Hampshire has strived for reform before.

In 2010, legislators passed SB 500, which mandated that inmates be released under supervision nine months prior to the end of their maximum sentences, and that parole violators receive a 90-day prison sentence.

The bill was aimed at helping prisoners reintegrate into the community prior to being released outright, and its passage resulted in an immediate release of more than 300 inmates, Lyons said. But the measure continued to draw backlash from critics who argued there weren’t enough resources to properly monitor those discharged early, and several legislators who had supported the bill reversed course after learning sexual and violent offenders were also eligible for release.

“I think it was well-intentioned, but in practice it was too rigid,” Belanger said.

The bill was essentially overturned in 2011, via SB 52, which reinstated release discretion to the parole board.

Some counties have made their own reforms, piloting alternative sentences for low-level drug offenders, partnering with area physicians to make drug treatment more affordable for inmates and opening mental health courts, where parolees meet and speak monthly about their progress with parole officers and a judge.

Belanger, who works closely with the mental health court in Merrimack County, said the program is small and in need of additional resources, but it and others like it, such as weeklong recovery stints in halfway homes over prison time for certain parole violators, are potentially powerful tools to prevent recidivism.

“Options like that, when used correctly, can be a really good tool to keeping people from going back,” she said.

Other states are also testing various reforms, decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana drug possession, nonviolent property offenders and certain motor vehicle offenders. In 2011, Louisiana’s legislature passed a law making certain nonviolent prisoners age 60 and over eligible for parole.

Murray said he sees a need for statewide reform, but that it must stretch beyond prison and include more and improved services to help those struggling with substance abuse or mental illness, and more effective parole and transition plans for inmates nearing the end of their sentences.

Prison should primarily be a means to prevent violent offenders from harming others, Murray noted.

“You have to get those people off the streets,” he said.

However, there are others, he said, “who, to be corrected, don’t need to be incarcerated for an extended amount of time.

“But to do that you need meaningful supervision on the outside.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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