Expert: Rehab felons in community, downsize prisons, don't privatize them.

Article:  A pressing need is unaddressed (A reprint from Foster's Daily Democrat)

By John Eckert, Strafford

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

No candidate for any state office in New Hampshire has initiated a debate about criminal justice policy. This remains one of the state’s most pressing problems.

Since the early 1980s, corrections spending has increased from $10 million to more than $100 million per year. The state has tried several quick fixes for the problem. First there was Senate Bill 500 in 2010, which essentially gave parole violators a get-out-of-jail-free card. This did not work. Today, the state is looking to privatization, which also will not work. Private prisons save money in two ways: They pay their staff less money and provide minimal training. Are these the people you want running our prisons?

The truth is, there is no quick fix for the corrections system. It has taken 40 years to reach the current ineffective state and cannot be repaired overnight. We must think long term. Here are some starting points: Convene a task force: In 1992, a legislative audit team evaluated the Department of Corrections. The team recommended that the governor convene a task force to evaluate the state justice system. This task force would include representatives from the Legislature, judiciary, law enforcement, corrections, victims and other stakeholders. It would review sentencing laws, resources, innovations in other states, and recognized best practices. The team would recommend statutory and policy changes to make the system more effective. No governor has ever acted on this important recommendation.

Reserve prison for those offenders who truly pose an unacceptable risk to society: Prison is the worst place to fix someone. The prison culture is negative, antisocial, and anti-authoritarian. Send a young offender to prison, and odds are he will leave even more deviant ever. This is especially true today, given the absence of meaningful prison treatment program. Many prisoners have substance-abuse problems directly related to their criminal conduct. Yet the system offers no therapeutic treatment for these addictions. At one time, the New Hampshire prison system was a model for the rest of the country, with a therapeutic community for substance abusers, a boot camp program, and state of the art education/job training programs, and more.

Today we do little more than warehouse most offenders, at a very high cost. This cost exceeds the cost of the prison system. Prisoners pay no taxes. They pay minimal restitution to their victims. They do not support their children. Their families often become wards of the state.

Everyone else, such as nonviolent property offenders, drug offenders, and most motor vehicle offenders, should be sanctioned in the community. Our probation and parole officers already have nearly unmanageable caseloads of 100 or more offenders. Community sanctions will work if we adequately fund and staff them.

Every county in the state should have a halfway house, a sober living facility, a variety of outpatient and residential substance abuse facilities, a day reporting center, and enough probation/parole officers to effectively supervise and assist their cases.

Strengthen and improve our juvenile justice system: Many adult prisoners came through the juvenile system. The purpose of juvenile justice is to reform at risk youth so they do not “graduate” into adult corrections. While I worked for the parole board, parents of prisoners told me that had the juvenile system been tougher on their children, they might not be in prison today. This is not to disparage those who work with these children, as most of them work hard at what often is a thankless job. Judges must hold juveniles more accountable, while we provide the interventions they need to deal with their problems. We must hold their parents accountable, if they are part of the problem and not part of the solution. Many of today’s troubled juveniles will become tomorrow’s prisoners.

Keep at-risk children in school: There also is a clear connection between poor school performance and criminality. Many of today’s prisoners did not do well in school. Many did not graduate from high school. We must do more to keep at-risk children in school. We need principals, administrators, and school boards who stand up to parents who fight efforts to hold their children accountable. Those in charge of our schools must support the educators, and not cave in to parental threats of litigation. Parents must be part of the solution, and not part of the problem.

These ideas do not cover all of the possibilities. If nothing else, I hope that they will promote serious discussion among the candidates. Fixing these problems will take time, effort, and resources. Most of all, it will take political will and a rejection of the failed policies of the past.

(John Eckert was executive assistant to the New Hampshire Parole Board from January 1993 until his retirement in June 2012.)