By ROGER AMSDEN, for THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Even with the addition of four corrections officers later this year, the Belknap County House of Corrections is still far from optimally staffed, members of the Belknap County Delegation were told Friday during a discussion of the proposed budget for the facility.
Asked by Rep. Peter Spanos (R-Laconia) what the ideal ratio would be, Superintendent Keith Gray said that he would like to have at least six more corrections officers and as many as 10 more when the new community corrections facility opens this fall.
But he said he would deal with what was realistic and would "take what I can get," adding that he is grateful for getting two new officers last year and four more this year.
He said he has a staff of of 25 full-time officers and seven part-timers for the 100 or so prisoners which are held at the jail on a daily basis, half of whom are awaiting trial.
"We do a lot with a short staff," said Gray, who pointed out that Grafton County, which has 150 beds and an average daily population of 91, has 44 full-time officers. Sullivan County, which has an average daily population of 80, has 38 full-time officers and Carroll County, which averages 60 people a day, has 32 full-time officers.
Asked to explain the jump in jail population in recent years, which peaked at 135 inmates in 2012, Gray said that the opioid crisis has seen many more people arrested and sent to jail and that the county's lack of a pre-trial program which could have them free on bail or wearing electronic bracelets has kept the inmate numbers high.
Norm Silber (R-Gilford) said that it appears that the jail is being used as a "dumping ground for non-violent offenders" after having been told by Gray that only eight of the 100 inmates being held at the jail are considered violent and held in the maximum security wing.
He said that he has six people on the first shift, five on the second and four on the third shift, which can create problems if an officer has to transport someone to the hospital on the third shift and can't return until being relieved at the hospital by a deputy sheriff.
Delegation Chairman Herb Vadney (R-Meredith) said that he thought the number of inmates being held at the facility is '"way out of whack" with what is happening in Belknap County.
DeVoy pointed out that Sullivan County has a program to keep people out of jail and has 135 people facing charges in that program, which involves pre-trial supervision and a bracelet program.
"We have criminalized stupidity and now we're paying the price for it. Right now we have nothing in pre-trial programs. It's like a community college for criminals and they get to plan their next crime while they're here," said DeVoy.
Vadney asked what other counties are doing differently and Commissioner Hunter Taylor (R-Alton) said the county is modeling its community corrections program on Sullivan County, which, since it built its community correction center and instituted pre-trial and post-sentencing programs has cut its recidivism rate from 70 percent to 20 percent.
Rep. David Huot (D-Laconia) said that Merrimack County has a similar program in which offenders are in court the day after they're arrested and receive pre-trial services. "A lot don't end up in jail. It's not free, but it's a heck of a lot less expensive than having them in jail."
Gray said that the jail currently has 125 spaces and that many of them, such as a gymnasium and a former exercise room, will no longer be used when the 18,000-square-foot, 64-bed community corrections facility opens this fall . He expects thee will be about 60 spaces in the current jail.
He also said that since the Felony First program started six months ago the average length of stay for those facing felony offenses has dropped by two weeks, which is providing some relief for the jail. The program bypasses circuit court proceedings and sends felony cases directly to Superior Court.
The proposed budget for the House of Corrections is $3,848,213, nearly $400,000 more than last year.
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