First of two parts
CONCORD — The rate at which criminals get sent back to state prison after a taste of freedom has reached a five-year low, but the favorable trend won't help reduce the inmate population or cut costs because fewer are being released as a result of changes to the 2010 parole reform law.
The 43.6 percent recidivism rate for 2011 — about the same as the national average — showed a drop of 12 percent over the last four years, according to new data compiled by the state Department of Corrections.
Since 2008, statewide recidivism rates have fallen at an average annual rate of 4.2 percent, the report said.
Still, that means slightly more than four out of every 10 offenders end up locked up again by the state within three years of being released, most for committing new crimes. That doesn't include those who reoffend and are held in county jails or go to prison for crimes in other states.
Because the state's 2,563 prison inmates each cost $33,698 a year to incarcerate — $92.32 a day — New Hampshire, like most other states, is desperate to close the revolving door; the average prison stay is 2.7 years.
The department's budget is $102 million this year, about double what it was in 1999. During the interim period, the state's crime rate remained low and stable, but the prison population increased 31 percent.
When parole reform passed as Senate Bill 500 in 2010, research at the time showed parole revocations had increased 50 percent from 2000, and probation and parole revocations accounted for 57 percent of all new admissions to state prison.
Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn credited the lower recidivism rates to his department's commitment to rehabilitation.
“From the moment a person is sentenced to prison and as they transition through our system, we direct our efforts toward the rehabilitation of that person to prepare them for their re-entry to society,” Wrenn said.
Others say the department has relaxed its policy on returning parolees to prison for violating the terms of their release and changed how it handles those accused of new crimes.
Parolees arrested for new crimes are often housed at a county jail, where they won't be counted until they are convicted of the new charges and returned to state prison, although Wrenn said that policy is not new.
Another corrections insider considers the whole business of measuring recidivism rates a sham. “It's all smoke and mirrors,” said Richard Van Wickler, the superintendent at Cheshire County Department of Corrections in Keene.
Van Wickler, who also teaches criminal justice at Keene State College, believes inmates have to finally take responsibility for their actions if they are to change their ways. There is no program that can magically transform a criminal mind, Van Wickler said.
If the state is serious about reducing the prison population, it needs to increase use of home confinement and other alternatives to incarceration for low-risk, non-violent offenders, Van Wickler said.
The state's downward trend in recidivism rates started before a massive bipartisan push by top state leaders and lawmakers to reform the state parole system. Senate Bill 500, also known as the Justice Reinvestment Act, was passed in 2010 as a result of that effort, requiring early, supervised release of most inmates.
The savings generated by the reduced prison population was supposed to fund community-based programs to rehabilitate offenders.
A handful of dangerous sex offenders were among the first to be released early to parole under the new law, igniting a political firestorm that ultimately led to the passage of SB 52, which essentially restored parole discretion to the Adult Parole Board.
“I would say for the most part, SB 52 neutralized the mandates of SB 500,” Wrenn said. “They essentially made (the early release requirements) options only.”
For the time SB 500 was in effect, “I believe it was successful. The results were greater than we initially thought,” Wrenn said.
But even the money saved during that time, about $250,000, was quickly used to help balance the state budget, not to pay for parole programs in communities as originally planned.
Now, the prison population is increasing again, Wrenn said, because the parole board is releasing about 35 fewer inmates a month since SB 52 went into effect.
“That will result in no savings at all,” Wrenn said. “It will end up escalating costs if the population continues to rise.”
An important component in lowering the recidivism rate, Wrenn said, is a new policy of intermediate sanctions that provide options for probation and parole officers that help keep individuals in the community even though they could be returned to prison for technical violations.
The recent success at reducing recidivism despite the political wrangling over parole reform is due to the department's ongoing commitment to the philosophy of re-entry, Wrenn said.
Corrections staff assess the levels of risk and areas of need with each offender to determine appropriate programming in the prison, and the level of supervision and additional resources needed when living back in the community, he said.
“We also now require that our programming incorporate evidence-based practices that target interventions and use cognitive behavioral treatment methods,” Wrenn said. The programs are further designed to provide consistency and continuity across all facilities and in the community, Wrenn said.
Wrenn also pointed to an increase in the number of case managers and licensed alcohol and drug counselors in the four largest probation and parole district offices. A grant that was providing treatment in the community to parolees with mental health issues has recently run out, with no new funding on the horizon, Wrenn said.
“It's going to be challenging,” Wrenn said.
Not everyone is pleased with the programming changes at the state prison.
Parole Board member Donna Sytek bemoaned what she sees as the lack of programs inside the walls. Sytek, formerly House speaker who backed SB 500 reforms, said there are now two main programs, Thinking for a Change and Living in Balance, besides sex offender, educational and work skills programs.
New Hampshire doesn't want to spend the money and keeps cutting programs, Sytek said.
As a member of the parole board, Sytek often sees people in their 20s who have already alienated their families, dropped out of high school and gotten addicted to drugs.
“How are they going to succeed?” Sytek said. “Working at Wendy's? How are they going to pay for an apartment?”
The state formerly invested in programs such as the Summit House for drug and alcohol rehabilitation. “It was a national model,” she said.
Summit House is closed, the Lakes Region facility is closed, and the First Step boot camp program is gone, as well, Sytek said.
“It should come as no surprise that it is easier to fall into bad habits and old friends or do drugs because they are hopeless,” Sytek said. “It's really sad.”
The department has to prioritize in tough economic times, she said. “You can't cut back on food, so what goes is programs.”
Wrenn disagreed. Studies on programs like Summit House show they weren't necessarily all that effective, Wrenn said.
Another complicating factor in the department's mission is Gov. John Lynch's push to privatize state prisons.
While Sytek and some lawmakers oppose privatizing prisons, others have pushed to move forward with it. Lynch's spokesman, Colin Manning, said the governor wants to move ahead.
”Gov. Lynch is looking forward to seeing what makes the most sense of all the public/private partnerships. He wants to make sure we meet the needs of the corrections system and ensure public safety,” Manning said.
Wrenn said he is waiting to see what such a partnership would entail.
“I don't know what will result if the state privatizes the prison system,” Wrenn said.
Wrenn said the prison's newer programs are evidence-based, proven in large studies elsewhere to lower recidivism.
The state can't yet track the rate of re-offending by programs to measure to measure their effectiveness, Wrenn said.
But that is the goal in the future and may be possible in a few years, he said.
“In this day and age with shrinking budgets, we have to come up with measures that we feel accurately portray the success of the programs,” Wrenn said.
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Nancy West may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.