My Turn: How prison reform bills would save the state money

For the Monitor
Published: 3/12/2020 6:20:38 AM
Modified: 3/12/2020 6:20:26 AM

Inmates in New Hampshire prisons will acknowledge that things aren’t as bad here as in other states. I know – I’ve asked them. But that doesn’t mean our state can’t do things better. Who can ever be opposed to aiming higher, especially when it could save New Hampshire money?

That’s why I’m so pleased to see that two bills I’ve sponsored in this legislative session have passed the House and are on their way to the Senate.

Two-thirds of a catch-22 is still a catch-22: The first of these bills, HB 1611, deals with what is often referred to as the “two-thirds rule.” Under current law, inmates in New Hampshire prisons may be eligible for release once they’ve served two-thirds of their term. But at the moment, they can’t actually begin the time-intensive process to be released at the two-thirds point in their term until they reach the two-thirds point in their term. The early release process takes about 18 months to complete, so do the math. It’s a classic catch-22. Meaning no one is ever released as early as the law says they might be, no matter how reformed they are simply because of this loophole in the law.

Setting aside the absurdity of this situation, hard fiscal numbers tell us to act. It costs about $44,000 a year to incarcerate someone in New Hampshire. Adding an unnecessary year and a half to their time costs taxpayers an extra $66,000 per inmate. In a state that is forever strapped for cash, that’s real money.

The smartest way prison reform saves money: The second criminal justice bill that I’ve sponsored directly relates to that cost – the $44,000 a year it costs to keep someone in prison. Here’s a sobering statistic: 44% of people released from New Hampshire prisons will be re-incarcerated within three years (a number that is in line with the national average). How can we best reduce the number of people who once released end up back inside? Education. Among those who earn a college degree while incarcerated, the recidivism rate drops to the single digits. Yet at the moment, the vast majority of inmates in New Hampshire have no real access to college classes. Or much of anything in the way of education beyond the opportunity to earn a high school GED.

That’s why HB 1555 establishes a committee to “study increasing wages, educational opportunities and the corresponding impact on recidivism” in our prison system.

Why include wages in the study? Because right now inmates make at most a couple dollars a day in their prison jobs. Article 13 of the U.S. Constitution makes clear that the state is under no obligation to pay prisoners for their labor. But college classes cost about $700 each. Meaning it’s nearly impossible for an inmate to earn enough money to pay for the classes that lead to a college degree.

So while the state saves some money by not paying inmates to do real work in prison – kitchen work, building and grounds work, maintenance work, hospice care – those savings are quickly lost when we factor in recidivism.

If we pay them more, and give them the incentive of earning a college degree while they serve time, New Hampshire could save a lot of money because a vastly smaller number of these people won’t be back in the prison system.

My hope for the study is that we can bring together enough stakeholders and build enough consensus to find a path forward that makes sense, both financially and morally. And then draft legislation to put that consensus into action. In doing so, we have a real chance to save New Hampshire piles of money and position the state as a leader in criminal justice reform.

And that’s something we can all support. That’s how we live free and thrive.

(Craig Thompson is a farmer, state representative and candidate for Executive Council District 2 from Harrisville.)


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