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January 25, 2009

Details of the prison economy problems from the Granite State

Local papers this Sunday are filled with local prison economy stories.  In addition to these pieces from West Virginia, today also brings from the Concord Monitor this article, headlined "In crisis, changes for prisons: Budget challenge may reshape corrections."  Here is a snippet, which includes details of the state's interesting back-end sentencing mechanism and cost calculations:

The state's corrections budget is one of the biggest and one of the hardest to cut because Commissioner William Wrenn can't simply close his prisons and send inmates home.  But many think this economic crisis might be the state's best chance to find cheaper, better ways to do its prison business.

"There is nothing like lean times to make you smart," said former speaker of the New Hampshire House Donna Sytek, who saw lawmakers through a similarly severe downturn in the 1990s.... 

"It's not about being tough on crime or soft on crime," Wrenn said. "We are facing a huge economic challenge here. Are we doing the right thing?"

Inside the prison, Wrenn had reinstated a past practice of allowing well-behaved, successful inmates to request early release before they'd otherwise be able to do so through the courts. Inmates can petition Wrenn and a review board to recommend them for a sentence modification; if the board approves the request, it sends the petition onto the sentencing judge for a final decision.

But Wrenn isn't expecting the revived practice to be a big money-saver for the state because in the one month the policy has been in place, nine inmates have submitted petitions and the review board hasn't approved any for submission to a judge.  Wrenn said his real hope is that the opportunity to win a sentence modification will persuade inmates to more actively pursue education and counseling while in prison to enhance their chances of early release.

What Wrenn is most passionate about may be the hardest of the solutions to pull off: alternative sentencing for defendants who suffer mental illness or substance abuse addiction.  He and a lot of others believe that if that population could be supervised and treated in their own communities and not housed in prison cells, the benefits would be many and not only monetary.

Inmates cost the state not only the $32,000 a year for basic incarceration, but also thousands in medical bills because the state is obligated to cover medical expenses when inmates are behind bars. Inmates supervised on the outside, however, are eligible for private insurance or Medicaid, which means savings for the state.

It's also far cheaper to pay a probation officer to supervise an inmate in an intense alternative program than to house someone inside a prison. In a recent study,  The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies compared that cost by looking at a year inside prison against a year in Strafford County's Drug Court, an intensive supervision and treatment program that lets inmates live at home.  The difference was staggering: $32,000 a year in prison versus about $11,400 a year in the Strafford County's alternative program.

January 25, 2009 at 11:47 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Funny how, in all these cost savings, no one ever seems to factor in the increase in crime that inevitably results when criminals are let out of prison.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 25, 2009 12:24:35 PM

That's okay. No one ever figures in the increase in crime that inevitably results when education, mental health services, and drug treatment programs are under-funded. I guess that makes both sides even, eh?

Also "funny" is the refusal of folks to factor in the cost of "get tough" policies that increase the liklihood of criminal behavior. Those increases don't count, I suppose, because they're created by "get tough" intentions.

Posted by: Rika | Jan 25, 2009 2:48:07 PM

They sure do spend a lot in Washington DC on education, don't they, and there's a lot of crime there. The problem, of course, is that if solving the crime problem were simply a matter of throwing around more money in the manner suggested by bleeding heart liberals, we would have solved it years ago.

Rika, you and I probably would agree on certain things. I think that our justice system could be changed so that some people who have "done their time" would have less long-term consequences to their criminality. I also favor a clemency program like that run by Governor Ehrlich of Maryland, who, it seems, made judicious choices about whom to release.

"Get tough" policies save the society a lot of heartache and costs. Locking up criminals, particularly serious ones, reduces crime. Many many criminals are simply criminals as a way of life--in other words, it's their job to be a criminal. Thus, when you lock up a guy for mugging, you probably prevent a lot of muggings.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 25, 2009 3:32:13 PM

I'm sorry--I should have specified I meant education (and other services) funding for the convicted/incarcerated. My fault for being lax in my wording.

We may agree on some things, but likely start at very different points. There should indeed by fewer long-term consequences, but I doubt you'd speak vehemently against, say, a public violent crime registry. I may be wrong, but you'd likely come down on the "public has a right to know" side, regardless of the public-endangering cost of that gift-wrapped knowledge.

Posted by: Rika | Jan 25, 2009 4:31:31 PM

Federalist wrote: "The problem, of course, is that if solving the crime problem were simply a matter of throwing around more money in the manner suggested by bleeding heart liberals, we would have solved it years ago."

Really? I don't remember when the US had national health care (physical and mental), guaranteed child care, guaranteed housing, and free higher education. I mean, I remember spending billions of dollars on war and business subsidies, but I don't recall this era of which you speak. Can you tell me when that was?

The real problem, of course, is that if solving the crime problem were simply a matter of keeping people incarcerated (in which the US leads the world) in the manner suggested by anti-social conservatives, we would have solved it years ago, since, you know, that is exactly what we having been doing for decades. Funny thing, though. Our society keeps churning out more people who commit criminal acts, as fast as you can lock them away. Wonder how that happens?

federalist wrote: "'Get tough' policies save the society a lot of heartache and costs. Locking up criminals, particularly serious ones, reduces crime."

Marginally. Marginally reduces crime. To put any kind of substantial dent in it requires action on the front end (more equitable distribution of wealth/income, health care, etc.) to prevent crimes from occurring, not merely reacting after a crime has occurred. Those of us who dislike seeing people victimized do not care to wait until after a crime has been committed to do something. Indeed, we have a moral obligation not to wait. If we can prevent that crime from occurring at all (and we can), then we should.

federalist wrote: "Many many criminals are simply criminals as a way of life--in other words, it's their job to be a criminal."

Why have more blacks chosen this job than whites? Please do tell, I eagerly await to hear your theories on the inherent inferiority of African Americans. Tell me what, in your opinion, makes black people more morally deficient than whites like yourself?

Posted by: DK | Jan 25, 2009 6:05:27 PM

Rika. And my perspective is that society needs to be consistent one way or the other. It boggles my mind how we can say that a violent felon doesn't need to be on a public registry while a person who watches child porn and has never laid a hand on anyone gets stuck for life. I don't care which way we go as a culture, but the situation we have now is untenable. Either we put all felons on a registry or none, because I just don't see any sound way to justify that the public needs to be notified of some felons but not of others.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 25, 2009 6:05:36 PM

"Many many criminals are simply criminals as a way of life--in other words, it's their job to be a criminal."

That is definitely true. And it turns out it is a terrible job. Yet people choose it, either out of short-sightedness, laziness, perceived necessity, coercion, etc. Even though I generally agree that people must be accountable for their choice to break the law, I also realize that, from a macro perspective, we need to recognize that these criminal choices are predictable from a statistical perspective, and are driven by lack of alternative opportunities and visions for a different kind of life. And changing those underlying conditions are the only way to change behavior on a broad scale.

If we as a society are to hold individuals accountable for moral choices while maintaining any credibility, we must also address the immorality implicit in a social system that persistently ignores and perpetuates inequitable distribution of opportunity. For example, despite the comment above about the DC school system, the reality is that schools accross the country are mostly funded by local property taxes resulting in vastly disparate per-pupil spending between the "haves" and "have-nots". This has a direct effect on the latter group's development, capabilities and horizons. It is immoral to preach about individual failings and refuse to acknowledge our collective failings. Beyond immoral, it is irrational and counter-productive, because our current system creates a drain on all of us, rich and poor, law-abding and law-breaking.

One more thing (and I realize I am semi-ranting, but the narrow, inflammatory tone of this "debate" drives me nuts): Even assuming that the generic "get tough" stand is more societally beneficial (or less detrimental) than the generic "bleeding heart" stand, that does not make the get-tough stand an independent good. At best, it is the best of two terrible alternatives. Our backwards debate needs to break out of this mold. The sheer fact that we lead the world in incarceration alone should be like an ice-cold bucket of water telling us something is horribly wrong. I am cautiously optimistic, however, based on several recent stories similar to the one in this post, that even if that fact alone couldn't shake us out of our gridlock, perhaps the ice-cold water of financial reality will start the process... I don't care why we get policymakers to engage in a more reasonable and broad-based type of debate about criminality; I just want us to get there.


Posted by: Observer | Jan 25, 2009 6:25:06 PM

"If we as a society are to hold individuals accountable for moral choices while maintaining any credibility, we must also address the immorality implicit in a social system that persistently ignores and perpetuates inequitable distribution of opportunity. For example, despite the comment above about the DC school system, the reality is that schools accross the country are mostly funded by local property taxes resulting in vastly disparate per-pupil spending between the "haves" and "have-nots". This has a direct effect on the latter group's development, capabilities and horizons. It is immoral to preach about individual failings and refuse to acknowledge our collective failings. Beyond immoral, it is irrational and counter-productive, because our current system creates a drain on all of us, rich and poor, law-abding and law-breaking."

BRAVO. Well given, well taken; well spoken, well heard.

I honestly and sincerely could not have said it better myself.

Posted by: Daniel | Jan 25, 2009 6:47:46 PM

Gee, people with means do more for their kids, and that causes people to commit crimes. Ok. Got it.

What are we going to do? Tell the parents who read to their kids etc. to stop because a lot of parents don't.

Posted by: | Jan 25, 2009 8:01:09 PM

"Gee, people with means do more for their kids, and that causes people to commit crimes. Ok. Got it."

Those are English words but I haven't a clue as to what you are trying to say. Whatever it is you've "got" please trying sharing again.

"What are we going to do? Tell the parents who read to their kids etc. to stop because a lot of parents don't."

Regrettably, there are people who believe that the solution to inequality is to tear everyone down to the same level. Most of them are Republicans holding political office in Washington, DC. But just because that's your solution, don't pin it on others. No one in these comments has taken that inference but you.

Posted by: | Jan 25, 2009 8:20:28 PM

@ Daniel: Thank you.

@ blank: Of course, people with means providing well for their families do not *cause* crime. On the other hand, relatively high levels of crime are a predictable *result* of our collective failure to educate all of our children.

Posted by: Observer | Jan 26, 2009 1:32:07 AM

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