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Editorial: Skimping on inmate programs costs the state

Year in and year out, New Hampshire lawmakers waste vast sums of money while simultaneously putting their constituents needlessly at risk of becoming crime victims. How? By refusing to give the state Department of Corrections the money it needs to reduce crime by reforming the criminal.

As a result, as a recent story by Monitor reporter Jeremy Blackman outlined, the state prison population now tops 2,800, many of them inmates who have returned time and time again. Each costs taxpayers roughly $96 per day or $36,000 per year. That cost continues to rise as the inmate population ages. The percentage of inmates older than 50 has more than tripled since 2001. Most have lived hard and hit the age when health costs skyrocket.

Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn and his staff know what to do to reduce a recidivism rate that approaches 50 percent, but the money to provide adequate counseling, substance abuse and sex-offender treatment programs, education and job training is never forthcoming. And so the revolving door turns. Nearly half of all inmates are back behind bars within three years.

Blackman’s report was a look at the status of the halfway house system that in theory helps prepare prisoners for a successful transition back into the community. Last fall, a legislative audit found the system sorely lacking in many respects. Blackman found that despite the report, little has changed. Money that could have been used to provide needed programming is instead being gobbled up by the ever-growing inmate census.

The four halfway houses, three of which are in Concord, provide so little by way of treatment programs and inmate support that the auditors actually said inmates might be better off going directly back to the community from prison. Accepting that is an admission that lawmakers will never be willing to support a corrections model that’s not just punitive but redemptive.

The corrections system’s shortcomings mean that some of the inmates will have returned after robbing your house, breaking into your car, sexually assaulting your child or committing an act of violence, actions that treatment and counseling might have prevented. That cost – social, psychological and financial – should be added to the $36,000 per year bill for warehousing an inmate back behind bars.

Treatment for substance abuse and sexual offenses should take place while inmates are in prison. To the extent possible, such problems should be behind inmates once they are deemed ready for transitional housing. Paroled inmates are expected to have a job, but the system does very little to help inmates find one, and employment prospects for felons are few.

A good attitude is even more important than a job. Changing anti-social thinking, corrections experts say, is the key to successfully reintegrating inmates back into society. Classically, offenders believe they’ve been mistreated. They see themselves as victims whose anger and willingness to break societal rules is righteous. They tend to be defiant, hostile and easily offended. They lack impulse control.

Joe Diament, who oversees the halfway houses, wants more resources for Thinking for Change, a program that’s proven that it can alter anti-social thinking. He wants to offer the program to many more inmates than he can now.

The program teaches inmates to recognize risky behavior and to respond appropriately to anger. It’s been known to reduce a recidivism rate that’s costing taxpayers a fortune while returning criminals to the street.

Giving the Corrections Department the money to offer the program to every inmate at risk of re-offending would be a smart investment, one that continues to protect the public long after the prisoner has been released.

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