To The Daily Sun,
With regard to the Belknap County jail, what a long, strange trip it's been. When the jail was allowed to deteriorate for four years under the leadership of three prior commissioners, the people of the county were told that it would cost $40 million dollars to build a replacement, and that an additional $20 million or so new correctional officers would be needed to staff it.
Over time, a new corrections model was identified in Sullivan County, which model demonstrated astounding success in reducing recidivism.
Under new leadership, Belknap County investigated the underpinnings of the Sullivan County model and hired the same consultant used there to guide our process. Another in a series of meetings will be held on Monday, June 1. Many of those with an interest in criminal justice will participate in this conference to help chart Belknap County's future.
It has been apparent for quite a while that Belknap's County Attorney does not accept the Sullivan County model as "best practice". When visiting their facility in Union, and later at a meeting of the jail superintendent, assistant county attorney, defense attorneys and others, it was most apparent that all of the people involved shared respect for one another and that all were dedicated to an anti-recidivism model. That model has seen those arrested for a new offense plummet from about 60 percent to less than 20 percent.
Belknap's County Attorney is elected and follows her own script in deciding county policy. She has consistently challenged the direction of county corrections in implementing, where appropriate, electronic home confinement and work release for those incarcerated. She has lost some of these challenges but "won" an alarming victory this week from Belknap Superior Court. This ruling negated a decision by the superintendent of the jail to allow a sentenced offender to work and to wear an electronic monitoring device. This device tracks not only physical location but can detect drug or alcohol use. While this defendant may continue to work, her address will be the county jail.
Giving a County Attorney veto power over decisions made by those charged with rehabilitation of prisoners flies in the face of RSA 619. This statute gives the jail superintendent the authority to appropriately give those sentenced the chance to work and to be supervised by electronic monitoring. If it is not honored by our legal system then I believe the expensive programming which Belknap County has been contemplating should not be provided.
Should Belknap County build a "soft" facility where the construction is geared not to maximum security but to engaging prisoners in constructive programming, building their work and personal skill sets and providing evidence based treatment or should we merely fix the existing jail and provide a separate pod for women?
We are coming close to making this decision and for that reason, while I disagree with the County Attorney and the Superior Court, I am glad to have the latest ruling before any more dollars are expended on the antirecidivism model. That model does work, as has been amply demonstrated in Sullivan County, but it does not work without the shared commitment of all involved in its implementation.
Belknap County Commissioner
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