To The Daily Sun,
Our nation is faced with a drug crisis which generally begins with prescription drug abuse and evolves into heroin addiction. Our county has not been spared from this growing problem. The Laconia Police Department recently reported that opiate related arrests this year are almost double what they were this time last year.
Our county jail is increasingly populated by individuals whose criminal activity is drug related. Either they were dealing drugs or committing crimes to finance their own drug dependency. Incarceration alone has not solved the drug problem. Most of county jail residents have been there before. Alarmingly, we are now seeing second and third generation occupants of the jail. In addition to kinship, they almost always share a drug addiction problem.
While we could have been addressing the real problem, the debate in our county has been over the appropriate jail facility. The prior commissioners started out recommending a 42 million dollar facility. The number gradually came down — from 42 million, to 35 million and then to 30 million.
The old Board of Commissioners was replaced at the beginning of 2015. A facility upgrade is now being recommended at a cost of slightly over 8 million dollars. This money will be used to improve the existing facility and to add a 64 bed residential component. This scaled-down cost approach was patterned after the plan employed in Sullivan County after the residents and leaders in that county decided a 40 million dollar project was not the best plan for their needs.
The focus for those who will occupy the new residential area will be on programming aimed at treating addiction and preventing recidivism. An important element of this approach will be reduction of incarceration time with continuing supervision and treatment as the participant is moved back into the regular community. This reintroduction will often start with work release and culminate with supervised actual release. In some instances, where expert screening calls for it and it is agreed to by the county attorney and the court, the offender will be diverted at the beginning of incarceration from jail time altogether. This diversion will be supervised and will be subject to continued program participation.
This model, generally referred to as the "community corrections" model, is increasingly being used nationwide. It has now been used in Sullivan County for a little over five years. During this period, the recidivism rate in that county has been dramatically lowered. Strafford County has been using the model since 2004. In 2013, Strafford County reported a net savings that year of over 6 million dollars as a result of reduced incarceration costs.
We, who make up your Board of Commissioners, have been in frequent disagreement on some issues, but on the appropriateness of the community corrections model for Belknap County, we are in agreement. This unanimous view was last affirmed at our September 2, 2015 meeting. Importantly, this model has the support of key members of the Belknap County criminal justice community, including the county attorney, the public defender, the judiciary, the sheriff, probation and Restorative Justice.
Another meeting is scheduled for tonight (October 27) at 7 p.m. at the County Complex in Laconia. At that meeting the Jail Planning Committee will make a presentation of the proposed new facility and the community corrections program tailored to the needs of Belknap County. This undertaking is an important step being taken by county government in addressing the drug crisis that threatens our community. I strongly urge members of the public to attend and offer your thoughts and suggestions.
Belknap County Commissioner