Take a new look at corrections in N.H.

New Hampshire has a low crime rate that has remained stable for years. So why is the number of people we incarcerate growing?In the last 10 years, New Hampshire has seen a 3 percent increase in the number of offenders sent to prison for new offenses — and yet our prison population has grown by 26 percent.Why has our corrections system turned into one of the leading cost drivers for our state budget? Is there anything we can do to change that without endangering public safety?These questions and others led lawmakers to reach out to the Council of State Governments Justice Center and its funders at the Pew Center on the States and the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance.We invited researchers here last year to give a presentation on their work in other states. This year, we were very fortunate that our state was chosen for a three-year study that will allow for data collection, study and recommendations for improving our criminal justice system.The study also will include follow-up once changes are implemented to make sure they work.As the head of the Interagency Coordinating Council for Women Offenders, I’ve long wanted this kind of data-based review to help us improve public safety and reduce costs. We need to understand our problem and target our resources to be most effective. I am optimistic we can make significant progress on this issue in 2010.Since the Justice Reinvestment Initiative was launched, researchers have been meeting with state and county officials, law enforcement, behavioral health professionals, lawyers, judges and victim advocates to get a broad picture of how our system works.One early finding points to a problem with how we handle people on probation and parole. We are revoking probation and parole and sending a record number back to prison. These revocations now account for about 57 percent of all admissions.The majority do not involve commission of new crimes but technical violations of the rules laid out for the parolee or probationer. Furthermore, the revocation rate varies widely by county — why do some counties send more of their folks back to prison than others?We don’t have answers to these questions yet, but what’s important is that we’re looking for them.The researchers have concluded that parole revocations will cost our state about $13.3 million in 2009. Would some of that money be better spent on community-based programs that treat underlying problems such as addiction and mental illness that challenge parolees and probationers?The costs are likely even higher when we talk about women offenders with children. When women go to prison, someone has to care for their kids. Sometimes that’s a relative but often the state must step in and find the kids a temporary home. The emotional suffering makes it that much harder for these youngsters to succeed in their own lives and research demonstrates they are at increased risk of becoming the offenders of the future.Researchers have found that community-based treatment is generally more effective than prison-based treatment in preventing recidivism. What does this mean for how we allocate state dollars to get the most for our money?We want to keep our low crime rate, but we also want to stop pouring money into a criminal justice system if it only recycles offenders. This New Year offers hope that we can find a better way.
Sen. Sylvia Larsen, D-Concord, is president of the New Hampshire Senate.