Testimony supporting the governor’s proposed budget

The budget addresses many years of prison neglect

I co-founded Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform in 2011, a nonprofit advocacy group that has grown to 300 dues paying members, many of them prisoners and their loved ones. I also chair the Episcopal Prison Concerns Committee, and I’m working with the New Hampshire Council of Churches to educate the public about the folly of mass incarceration. We all want smarter crime laws that reduce prison populations safely instead of warehousing inmates at $35,000 per year in crowded, dangerous cellblocks. The money saved on prisons could and should fund programs that help ex-offenders become working, tax paying, law abiding citizens. The state has gutted the corrections budget for many years. Prison conditions have eroded. Many officers work two and three double shifts a week just to cover all the pods with minimal staffing. Prisoners bunk two to a cell. Sometimes rows of cots fill living rooms and gymnasiums. 

This budget begins to make up for years of budgetary neglect. It hikes annual spending for corrections from $100 million to $119 million. Much of the increase will properly staff the new women’s prison under construction. Be assured the state will lose an expensive class action lawsuit unless it builds and runs a good facility for women. To be honest, the governor’s budget is woefully inadequate to train, rehabilitate and restore all the human beings New Hampshire locks away and forgets. If we ignore this fundamental responsibility much longer, New Hampshire could face the kind of court order California received a few years ago. Release 44 percent of your prisoners from unconstitutional, cruel and unusual punishment, and do it fast.

The budget funds community programs for ex-felons

The spending proposal also extends the Medicaid expansion health insurance program that is critical for parolees and other low-income groups. Many ex-offenders will tragically return to prison unless lawmakers preserve this mostly federally funded safety net. Prison case managers have been helping offenders apply for their new coverage so they can see a doctor and get medications on the outside. In the recent past a person left prison with a two-week supply of pills, no money to refill their prescriptions and no way of getting care outside the emergency room. That was a formula for failure. 

It’s too early to provide you with data from anywhere in America on the benefits of Medicaid expansion for these fragile groups. But Medicaid expansion will cover addiction and mental health programs that struggling alcoholics and addicts badly need to avoid self medicating and the ensuing spiral of behavior. That sounds like a bargain for a cost of $12 million in general funds. If you would be patient, the buying power of these 34,000 new healthcare consumers can stimulate the creation of community programs for folks who so often leave prison institutionalized and traumatized. The same healthcare coverage can help non-offenders keep their jobs, avoid homelessness and obey the law instead of victimizing someone.