April 15. 2013 5:37PM

Another View: NH needs more sensible drug laws, not a new prison

Instead of celebrating the likely funding for a new women's prison in New Hampshire, state leaders should look at the remarkable reduction in prison population achieved by New York State.

Until 2009, New York had among the strictest drug laws in the nation. These so-called Rockefeller laws provided mandatory minimum 15-year prison sentences for various drug possession convictions. In 2009 the governor and legislature repealed most of these laws. The state began sentencing addicts who commit crimes to treatment instead of to prison. And what happened? The state has so far reduced its prison population by 20 percent! New York now has vacant prisons for sale.

Before we spend $38 million for a new prison, we should consider what potentially greater dividends we will reap by investing more money into community corrections. I speak of halfway houses, sober houses, substance abuse treatment centers, day reporting centers, restorative justice centers and other programs, plus the case managers and probation officers needed to supervise additional offenders in the community.

The words rehabilitation and prison are mutually exclusive. If they were not, New Hampshire's recidivism rate would not be above 45 percent. Prison is the last place to try and rehabilitate someone. Prison should be the punishment of last resort, reserved for offenders who present the greatest danger to society. All others should be sanctioned in the community.

If properly funded and staffed, community corrections programs can be very effective. Just think about it: offenders under community supervision must succeed in society, not inside the artificial environment of a prison.

The time has come for New Hampshire's political and criminal justice leadership to admit that our current system clearly is not working. The achievement of New York State provides a verifiable blueprint for a bold new direction in the Granite State. It is time that our leaders display the courage to take our state in a new direction.

John F. Eckert of Strafford is the former executive assistant to the New Hampshire Adult Parole Board.