To The Daily Sun,
As our fall elections approach, County Commissioner John Thomas continues to support a new county jail based on the Ricci Greene plan, which had an original estimated cost of $42.6 million but which Mr. Thomas said recently was buildable for between $30 and $35 million. Mr. Thomas justifies the
expenditure of this amount of money as being necessary to stem the ever-increasing tide of repeat offenders overcrowding our county jail. In other words, according to the reasoning of our current commissioners, the degree of success attainable in preventing recidivism directly correlates to the
amount of money spent on the correction facility in which the effort is being made. The Belknap County problem is such, according to this way of thinking, that we must spend $30 to $35 million to effectively address it.
One need not look far from home for compelling evidence to the contrary. In 2007 Sullivan County was poised to build a new jail designed to house 194 inmates, with space totaling 90,638 square feet at an estimated cost of $45 million. The parallel between the Sullivan County situation and the events taking place in Belknap County is interesting. Like the expensive facility being pushed by the County Commissioners in our county, the $45 million project in Sullivan County was put together by Ricci Greene.
Because of economic concerns relating to the high cost of their Ricci Greene designed facility, Sullivan County put together a County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee made up of local judges, correction officials, law enforcement representatives, a representative of the N.H. Public Defender
Program, mental health professionals, the Sullivan County Commissioners office and members of the Sullivan County Delegation. The end result of their collaborative effort was abandonment of the Ricci Greene $45 million project. Instead, the existing jail was upgraded at a cost of $1.7 and a minimum-
security 72 bed community corrections center was added to the existing jail, to house inmates involved in various rehabilitative programs, at a cost of $5.4 million. Thus a $45 million dollar problem was replaced by a $7.1 million dollar solution.
Clearly this sort of approach is viewed by the incumbent commissioners as addressing the problem “on the cheap” and thus inevitably inadequate. The Sullivan County Corrections Superintendent has said that he had some initial concerns as to whether the less expensive patchwork approach could accomplish the goals that Sullivan County had for its corrections facility. At the time Sullivan County discarded its $45 million Ricci Greene plan, the Sullivan County recidivism rate was running at approximately 80 percent; eight out of ten inmates housed in their county jail returned after their initial stay.
A facility that could accommodate good rehabilitation programs to reverse the recidivism trend was the
Now, four years after completion of the project and after saving $37.9 million by discarding its Ricci Greene plan, Sullivan County, with its renovated jail and its very basic new community corrections component, has reduced its recidivism rate from 80 percent to 18 percent. The lesson to be learned from the Sullivan County story is clear: an extravagant facility built at a high cost is not the key to corrections success. Rather, a basic safe and efficient facility and a talented and dedicated staff are the essentials.
Since under our form of county government policy matters such as jail planning are the responsibility of the county commissioners, with the county delegation having control only over the amount to be spent, it is vital that we elect commissioners who are grounded in practical reality and who are not
easily blinded by the false notion that more spending is the cure to all problems. With the right county commissioners, we can have a meaningful study done on whether any or all of the existing jail can be used in a cost effective manner. To date, no detailed analysis has been done addressing this important issue. Clearly this should be done immediately as the jail issue is being addressed.
We may find that through renewal of our existing jail and appropriate supplementation of the renovated facility, the long-term jail issue can be addressed for less than $10 million as it was in Sullivan County.
If a Sullivan County solution turns out not to be feasible for us, we can have a safe and efficient new jail with facilities to conduct the rehabilitation programs that we want and need for between $12 and $14 million. Either way, we can be confident from the Sullivan County experience that an exorbitant price and the crushing budget consequences of such spending are not necessary to corrections success.
Sullivan County is attaining significant success in stemming the tide of recidivism without Ricci Greene; so can Belknap County.