In prison crowding review, keep eyes on the budget | News
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Friday, April 15, 2011

In prison crowding review, keep eyes on the budget

Posted by on Fri, Apr 15, 2011 at 4:50 PM

As Gov. Bev Perdue contemplates how to respond this weekend to the House and Senate GOP's tricky moveof tying 37,000 people's unemployment benefits to cuts in next year's budget, let us turn our attention to a mounting long-term problem for the state.

North Carolina's prison population has increased 29 percent since 2000, despite a drop in crime, according to a Council of State Government's report authorized by the governor and legislature. You can learn more about this "Justice Reinvestment in North Carolina" project, and download the report, here.

If this continues, we're going to need hundreds of millions more to build prisons and lock people up, something the state already spends more than $1.3 billion on. More than 50 percent of the state's prison admissions in 2009 were for probation revocations, the report found. Many of those are simply technical violations.

What's needed, the study concluded, is more and better focused supervision of parolees and probationers, along with more and better focused treatment for addictions and mental health problems.

A bi-partisan group of legislators, including retired probation officer and current state Rep. David Guice, have responded with a range of suggested changes in House Bill 642.

Guice, R-Transylvania, said one of his biggest concerns is that 85 percent of the people who leave prison are unsupervised, and they have a higher recidivism rate than those who are supervised. The report says that, though I can't find an actual percentage increase in the report to quantify this.

April 22 update: It's 51 percent versus 45 percent. Thanks to Robert Coombs with the Council of State Governments Justice Center for emailing in to help us locate the statistic. It was included in the report, I just missed it.

"In the last number of years we've done an exception job of building prisons," Guice said. "We've done an exceptional job of locking people up. The questions is, have we been smart."

"Smart," Guice said, means reshuffling what the state spends on supervision and treatment. Guice chairs the budget subcommittee on public safety, and said he wants an $7.5 million more in substance abuse treatment next year than this year.

But anyone interested in this issue would do well to keep a close eye on budget negotiations. For example, Guice's subcommittee's initial recommendations, posted Tuesday, would eliminate or cut funding for a slew of treatment programs.

Family court and drug court, once slated for full elimination by the committee, would instead get a 1-year reprieve to prove their worth. Fifty-plus prison chaplain positions would be cut, with the state hoping for volunteer services instead. Various non-profits would see their treatment funding eliminating, though Guice said the money would merely shift to better help the people who need it.

The CSG's report found that treatment resources are currently "allocated ineffectively" and "not focused on individuals whose treatment needs are most acute and whose risk of re-offense is highest. Instead, they are "allocated across misdemeanor and felony probation populations, without regard to risk or need," the report states.

State Rep. Alice Bordsen, D-Alamance and a co-sponsor with Guice on HB 642, said the justice re-investment project holds promise, though already she's "not sure we are keeping a sufficient quantity of services" in next year's budget.

"I think the principles are excellent," Bordsen said. "The only question is the execution of it."

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