Prison population, sentencing laws costing state more

About 2,497 people in New Hampshire woke up in prison this morning, and it’s safe to say most of them would rather be somewhere else instead.

State officials would like to find alternatives, too, because it’s expensive to keep so many people in prison.

On Wednesday, Gov. Craig Benson’s Commission to Assess the Operating Efficiency of State Government released its final report, which includes a recommendation to privatize the state’s prison system.

The commission also suggests looking into the state’s “truth in sentencing” law, to determine whether keeping inmates in prison longer is worth the cost. A bill pending in the House would abolish truth in sentencing, and revert to the old system of giving time off for good behavior.

Prison hasn’t gotten any more expensive over the years, prison statistics and previous studies show. It’s just that the state has so many more prisoners. The question is why.

The number of inmates in New Hampshire’s prisons has climbed steadily over the past two decades, and the prison’s budget has grown along with it.

In fiscal year 1981, the state prison housed about 337 inmates with a budget of just over $5 million, according to a 2001 study by Richard Minard Jr., co-director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies.

The prison system now has 2,497 inmates, prison spokes-man Jeffrey Lyons said, and a budget of about $79 million.

The state has room for 2,575 inmates, including the men’s prisons in Concord and Berlin, the women’s prison in Goffstown, the Lakes Region prison and three halfway houses in Concord and Manchester.

Though the prison system and its budget have grown over the years, the cost of incarceration held steady when adjusted for inflation, Minard reported.

From 1981 to 2001, Minard found, the average annual cost for each inmate has fluctuated only slightly from a median From 1981 to 2001, Minard found, the average annual cost to incarcerate each inmate has fluctuated only slightly from a median of $13,700 in 1981 dollars.

“What we found, and it’s still true, is the big driver in Department of Correction spending has been the prison population,” Minard said in an interview.

“Adjusted for inflation, spending per inmate has remained essentially flat for 20 years,” he said.

It now costs the prison system an average of $25,341 to incarcerate each inmate for a year, Lyons said. The private company that Benson’s commission asked to study the prison system estimated it would spend about $5,000 less per inmate to run the system, the commission reported.

In contrast to imprisonment, it costs the state about $817 annually to supervise a person on parole or probation, Lyons said. There again, the commission suggested a private company might be able to offer some of the same services cheaper.

“It (supervised release) costs us much less. We’re not paying to feed them, we’re not paying to house them. . . . We’re not paying for medical treatments in the prison,” Lyons said.

The prison population has kept growing even since the mid-1990s, while the number of new crimes and convictions began to drop, Minard reported. A high number of probation and parole violations are one reason. Longer sentences are another.

While the commission focuses on privatization and computerization, previous studies by the Center for Public Policy Studies suggest that increased drug and alcohol treatment and diversionary programs would be effective ways to reduce the prison population and expenses.

Treatment for drug and alcohol addiction is not widely available in New Hampshire. Private treatment centers have closed, public programs have long waiting lists and state spending on addiction treatment has been cut in recent years.

Though speculative, it seems likely that more treatment programs would keep some people out of prison in the first place. Law enforcement experts have long noted that substance abuse causes crime. Addicts may turn to crime to support a habit, and people are more likely to behave in stupid or violent ways when drunk or addled by drugs.

“We estimate about 85 percent of all our inmates who come here have some sort of substance abuse issue, whether it’s drugs or whether it’s alcohol,” Lyons said.

Furthermore, nearly half of the inmates in prison at any given time are serving time for probation and parole violations. A majority of them got busted simply for drinking or using drugs, Lyons said.

“Primarily it’s substance abuse issues. . . . That’s the major cause of parole violations. Very few come back because they’ve committed a new crime,” Lyons said. “They’re out on parole, they go to a bar, drink a few brews . . . that’s an automatic violation.”

Inmates identified as needing treatment can get it in prison, Lyons said, and people on probation or parole are routinely ordered to undergo treatment.

Most criminal offenders, however, get little treatment beyond Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous programs, the Center for Public Policy Studies found.

In a series of studies titled “Under the Influence,” the center found that at any given time there are roughly 13,000 people in the corrections system – including juveniles and people in jail, prison, or on parole or probation – who could benefit from treatment. The state can offer treatment to about 5,000 of them, the center found.

In parts of the state, some criminal defendants are sentenced to the Academy Program as an alternative to prison. The Academy keeps defendants in their homes and at their jobs, but requires participation in various counseling and education programs, including addiction treatment. The Academy costs a great deal less than prison, with no greater recidivism rate, Minard said.

“For every dollar the state spends on it, we save three,” he said.

Plan for early release

Keeping people out of prison is one way to cut costs. Freeing prisoners earlier is another. The commission recommended that the state consider doing away with its “truth in sentencing” law, and a bill pending in the House would do just that.

“Reducing the prison population would definitely reduce our costs,” Lyons said. “Because of the law, we don’t really have any way to reduce the population.”

The “truth in sentencing” law, adopted in 1982, doesn’t affect the actual sentences that criminals receive. State law sets different terms for different crimes, and judges sentence criminals based the law and their assessment of the case at hand. Truth in sentencing dictates how much time inmates must spend in prison before becoming eligible for parole.

New Hampshire prison sentences come with a minimum and maximum, and the maximum is usually double the minimum. Inmates become eligible for parole after serving the minimum term. They can remain in prison for up to the maximum, if they fail to convince the parole board that they’re making a sincere effort to change their ways.

Before “truth in sentencing,” inmates earned time off their minimum sentences for good behavior. Under “truth in sentencing,” inmates get extra time for bad behavior.

Either way, inmates serve less time if they behave themselves, and take advantage of programs designed to help them to reform and rehabilitate themselves.

“It’s an incentive for inmates to take the programs we offer them, and be on good behavior,” Lyons said. “It’s really the only incentive we have.”

Under “truth in sentencing,” a person sentenced to two to four years in prison becomes eligible for parole after two years, but his sentence can be extended by up to 150 days for bad behavior.

Under the proposed bill, inmates instead could earn up to 121 days off each year of their sentence for good behavior. The Department of Corrections estimates it would save $3.3 million a year as a result.