Tell senators the budget is terrible crime policy

By CHRIS DORNIN, Laconia Citizen, Guest Columnist | May 03, 2015

Please make time to testify May 5 at the Senate hearings on the House budget in Representatives Hall. The two sessions start at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m to accommodate folks who have to work for a living. If you have questions, I can send you more info on each issue.

The budget would authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to privatize the Sununu Center for delinquent kids in Manchester. A broad coalition of prison reformers worked for three years to keep profit-making prisons from taking over adult corrections. The same threat is back. That successful alliance has to mobilize again in a hurry. This controversial proposal never went before a policy committee for vetting. The budget hearing is our only bite at the apple. That’s unfair, maybe, but this State House politics, not Eden.

The budget would slash more than $2 million from the corrections overtime fund that pays many prison guards to work several double shifts a week. The cut would create catastrophic staffing problems and dangerous cellblocks. Personnel shortages and employee burn out are real issues already. They will get far worse if this budget becomes law.

Please mention an item that is closely related to the operating budget. In the capital budget, HB 25, the House approved a $12.6 million increase to the $40 million appropriation for a new women’s prison in Concord to cover cost overruns. The bids came in much higher than expected. That extra money sounds like a good idea, but it is a mixed blessing. For less cost the state could build a smaller maximum security complex and an array of new halfway houses and sober houses for women.

It’s quite late to raise this concern, which policymakers ignored last spring, but it’s worth screaming into the wind sometimes.

We face a choice between a 19th century incarceration philosophy and one that relies on community corrections for all but the worst offenders. The latter is cheaper and safer. It’s not too late to do the right thing here.

Please mention this item in your testimony as a safe way to save money on the operating budget. Community corrections is cheaper than incarceration.

The House budget would remove the $12 million state match for the popular Medicaid expansion medical insurance program, thus leaving more than $200 million in matching federal funds on the table. That single item makes the whole budget draconian.

Forty thousand people with incomes below 138 percent of federal poverty level, including most parolees, would go back to getting treatment in emergency rooms or not all. This one-year-old program has the potential to create badly needed re-entry programs for prisoners so they succeed on the outside. But only if it survives.

Republican senators plan on introducing a bill next year to renew the expansion program. That is too late. We must fight to include that $12 million in the budget right now while the governor still has the leverage of a veto. Even if the Senate OKs Medicaid expansion next year, the funding would come out of approved line items elsewhere. And the House has pledged to kill anything that smacks of Obamacare. Senators could run for re-election having voted for Medicaid expansion when it hardly mattered. You can remind them that 40,000 people with some skin in the game will be watching.

Plan to oppose legalizing casinos May 5 as well. That’s not in the House budget, but the Senate historically favors slots. Tell senators that gaming palaces breed gambling addicts. Those addicts are more prone to commit crimes, often against their own families. Why create crime as a policy?

Casinos raise revenue from the poor, those who can least afford the burden. Think of slots as the most regressive tax of all.

Heavy New England competition among casinos has driven down their profit margins, so they are no panacea for state budget makers. This is a profound moral issue.

Chris Dornin is the founder of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform.