Editorial: State has a clear path to prison reform

Last modified: 11/18/2014 12:18:10 AM
Despite its divided state government, New Hampshire’s governor and Legislature could find a way to reduce the state’s growing prison population and save money without increasing the crime rate. Other states are doing it, and New Hampshire was a leader in the movement before progress was reversed by the radical Legislature installed by the 2010 election. Creating sentencing and corrections policies that keep the public safe without locking up an increasing percentage of the citizenry is a bipartisan goal that’s within reach.

Earlier this month, California voters passed Proposition 47, a ballot initiative that converted many low-level, nonviolent crimes – such as possession of a small quantity of drugs, including heroin, writing a bad check and theft or shoplifting when the value of property is $950 or less – from felonies to misdemeanors. The change reduced the maximum jail sentence for such offenses to one year instead of three, and cuts a year, on average, off the sentences of some 10,000 inmates in California’s notoriously crowded prison system.

Official estimates say that alone will save the state hundreds of millions per year. The savings would be used to help fund schools and drug and alcohol treatment programs, strengthen parole supervision and create community supports to keep offenders out of prison or prevent their return.

California didn’t pioneer state efforts to stop swelling prison populations by sending minor offenders, many of whom have a substance abuse problem or mental illness, to crime school – by which we mean prison. In 2007, Texas’s gun-totin’ governor, Rick Perry, saved his state an estimated $2 billion by scrapping a plan to build eight new prisons, instead creating drug treatment and mental health programs and sentencing nonviolent offenders to them. The state’s crime rate fell.

Conservative states, in fact, have led the way.

Kentucky, Arkansas and Georgia all created alternative sentencing programs for nonviolent minor offenders. New Hampshire, too, was a leader. In 2010, Senate Bill 500 went into effect. It required nonviolent property and drug offenders to serve 100 to 120 percent of their minimum sentence, reducing their time in prison. It used short, swift jail sentences to dope slap parole violators into mending their ways rather than sending them back to prison for a long stay. It called for the automatic release of nonviolent inmates nine months before the end of their sentence to intensive community-based supervision rather than waiting to see if they made it on the outside after they were freed.

Those changes and others worked: The prison population dropped by more than 300 with no effect on the crime rate. The savings was considerable and the recidivism rate declined. The reforms of SB 500, however, were largely reversed a year later by SB 52, a law enacted by what remains known as the O’Brien Legislature. The prison population began to climb again and now stands at 2,711.

The next Legislature could end the troubling continuation of ineffective policies that increase the prison census and instead make an all-out effort to rehabilitate nonviolent offenders before locking them up for a long time with hard-core inmates.

Lawmakers should consider California-style sentencing reform and invest in policies that shrink the prison population and use the savings to fund additional alternative sentencing, community corrections and mental health and drug treatment programs. Such changes would save money, deter crime and turn around lives in danger of being wasted.


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