Ever increasing length of inmate stays could mean jail size planning target is too low

LACONIA — Members of the Belknap County Jail Planning Committee were told last night by Corrections Superintendent Dan Ward that a 20 percent increase in the length of time spent behind bars by prisoners is calling into question projections that a 180-inmate facility would be large enough meet the future correctional needs of the county.
''We were up from an average stay of 25 days in 2012 to 32 days this past year. And the average length of stay has gone up for 16 straight years,'' Ward told the committee, pointing out the major effect the court system has on how the jail is managed.
Ward, Belknap County Sheriff Craig Wiggin and Jail Planning Committee Chairman and Belknap County Commissioner Ed Philpot (D-Laconia) said that the projections of the so-called Bennett Report, which called for a community corrections approach in which programs would be provided which would reduce recidivism, were based on numbers which may prove to have been too conservative.
''That means we may be planning for a project which will be too small,'' Philpot observed.
Ward said that the jail is holding more people charged with serious crimes, such as armed robbery, manufacturing crystal meth and serial burglaries and that pre-trial confinement contributes to the jail's space problems.
He said that one frustrating factor for him in keeping inmates in jail for long periods of time is the lack of supervisory personnel for electronic monitoring of those who might qualify for supervised release.
''We can only monitor released inmates 14 at a time. That means those who qualify and are serving 12-month sentences have to sit in jail and wait in line until they rise high enough on the list to be able to qualify. And they pay for the costs of that electronic monitoring themselves,'' he pointed out.
He said that the county has had some successes with programs such as one on parenting skills which 27 inmates have taken and there has been no recidivism and another in which nearly 100 inmates have earned a high school diploma and recidivism has dropped sharply.
''We've had success in putting out little fires and can do better if we can offer programs to more people,'' said Ward.
The committee rejected by an overwhelming show of hands a motion made by Commissioner Steve Nedeau (R-Meredith) to suspend the committee's work for an indefinite span of time in light of recent criticism of its efforts by members of the Laconia City Council and other local officials in the county.
Committee members urged development of an informational campaign to get the word out to the public about the extent of the jail's problems and how the lack of action is making matters worse and more costly for taxpayers.
At its next meeting on January 21 the committee will revisit a proposal to seek a $3.5 million bond issue from the County Convention this year for temporary steps to deal with crowding issues at the county jail.
The bond issue would include a 48-bed temporary housing unit, which would cost $1,584,681 for a three-year contract; $500,000 for a schematic design for a new facility and $1 million for replacing the HVAC system at the current jail.
Ward said recently that there are currently 140 inmates in the facility, which is designed for 120, and that the 17 women inmates are housed in the gymnasium, which keeps that part of the facility from being used for recreation during the months when outside recreation is limited.
''We've been sending upwards of 30 people away (to facilities in other counties) during recent months. If we install a temporary facility we get all of the prisoners back and get the use of the gymnasium back as well as have some program space,'' Ward told the committee at a recent meeting.