Robin Milnes (LNH ’15) Executive Vice President – INEX Capital & Growth Advisors
As I traveled along the slippery mountainous roads that early April morning en route to our session day at the Sullivan County House of Corrections, I reflected on my ride along with two very engaging and committed parole and probation officers for the City of Manchester. I, once again, thought about all that I had witnessed during my 4+ hour ride that evening through some of the “not so finer” parts of Manchester. I reflected on how discouraged I was when I went home that night. How disappointed I was in a system that, at that point, didn’t seem to resolve any problems, but rather just recycled the same people and problems through the system. I was distraught over a heroin problem in the city that is getting more out of control every day.
This and more was going through my mind as I pulled into Sullivan County and met up with my classmates for the day. I think we all appreciated the fact that our day started with the opportunity to debrief on our PPO ride along visits and the ability to share our stories and experiences.
Our first speaker of the day was Christopher Keating, Executive Director of the NH Judicial Council. Attorney Keating’s sense of humor, boldness and style challenged the class to think during his presentation. And his fast pace kept us on our toes.
The role of the judicial council is to provide public defense/representation to those that cannot afford to pay for a defense. His department’s budget is around $25 million, and services are provided in one of three ways (1) Public Defender Program, (2) Contract Attorneys, or(3) Assigned Counsel.
Attorney Keating explained the concept of the Class B misdemeanor and its impact on those that cannot afford to pay for an attorney. If you are a first time offender, and it is a low level crime such as possession of a controlled substance, you will likely be charged with a Class B misdemeanor. This means there is no jail time, but the charge remains on your record. However, you are not entitled to a public defender. This concept was created as a means to streamline the court system and to save costs in the judicial council system. However, the practical impact of this is that those who can afford to do so, will hire an attorney and be in a position to have a guide to the court system and understand the jeopardy they are in – understand if they “plead guilty” what long-term impact that has on them. Those that cannot afford counsel, do not have that same benefit and unfortunately, have the permanent impact of the guilty plea on their record as well as whatever various fines and penalties are imposed on them along the way.
As a final note, Attorney Keating cautioned the class that society could be quick to define people by their mistakes or label them by their convictions.
Next up was our very own Sarah Sadowski (LNH ’15), Community Engagement Director, New Futures. Sarah explained that New Futures is a non-partisan, state policy organization. Sarah offered us some very sobering statistics. She noted that alcohol is the fourth largest revenue source in our state, yet we don’t fund prevention anywhere near that same level. Substance abuse is a chronic medical condition, and so far this year 315 people have died of opiate overdoses in NH. New Hampshire has the highest substance abuse rate in the nation, and we lead the nation in youth high school stats. The state has no unified prevention programming. Higher income youth use at a higher level. There is a direct link between mental health and substance abuse. For acute addiction, there is a 6-8 week wait for residential treatment.
Sarah encouraged us to support the Governor in the solutions she proposed in her budget address – NH Health Protection Program, extension of the Medicaid expansion program, and tripling the funding to the alcohol prevention fund.
David Perry, Superintendent of Sullivan County House of Corrections, provided a very insightful overview of his facility and the rehabilitation program currently being utilized there. He noted that the jail was originally built in 1978 and designed for 44 inmates.Today, their facility has been completely redesigned and expanded so that they can successfullyoperate the “TRAILS” rehabilitation program (Transition Re-Entry and Inmate Life Skills). 85-90% of those incarcerated today are there for drug related crimes and need treatment. Those in the TRAILS program receive substance abuse treatment, counseling, parenting skills, job training, etc.
The program appears to be highly effective in that Sullivan County’s recidivism rates are currently at 17%, compared to other counties and the NH Dept. of Correction in the 50+%. All counties have the ability to fund the same program. Sullivan County received $1.5 million in original grants. While those grants have now expired,and the costs will be shifted to the taxpayers, the operating costs savings have been significant enough to justify that shift.
During our lunch break, our class was offered the opportunity to tour the prison itself. It was a stark contrast as we started in the newer section where the TRAILS participants are housed while working their way back into the community, and we ended in the original prison where the highest level offenders are held in maximum security while awaiting trial and possibly being sent off to state prison. While there will perhaps always be a role for the traditional type of incarceration in our prison system, the proactive approach of addressing the cause of the problem versus the traditional single focused punitive system provided an opportunity to ponder the impact if this model were implemented more broadly in our state and nationally.
Devon Chaffee, Executive Director of ACLU of New Hampshire, next described what she characterizes as modern day debtor’s prisons. While there is Supreme Court law precedent making it illegal for failing to provide defendants with a hearing to determine their ability to pay, for jailing defendants who are too poor to pay their fines and for jailing defendants who are too poor to pay for their public defense, there are currently over 287 cases being studied in NH of people incarcerated for failing to pay a fine.
Time was allotted for a thought provoking case study addressing the impact of mental health on our criminal justice system. While we may have suspected it as our groups worked through the exercise, Panelist Richard Cohen, Executive Director of the Disability Rights Center, confirmed that the case was actually based on Adam Lanza, the individual who carried out the Sandy Hook, CT school shooting. It was disheartening to recognize the level of breakdown in communication along the way in the school systems, mental health systems and medical systems, but most importantly at a parental level for Adam.
Attorney Cohen shared the historical rise and fall of the mental health system in our state, and what ultimately led to a lawsuit against the state alleging that the deterioration of the mental health system had caused the unnecessary institutionalization of the mentally ill. A settlement agreement with the state requires monies to be allocated into the mental health system over a 4-5 year period to improve services in this area.
Barbara Maloney, a member of the NH Parole Board and practicing attorney, educated our group on what is required to serve on the parole board and how the process generally works.
Finally, Jen Devoe from the Greater Manchester Mental Health Center and Tim Moquin from Hillsborough County Department of Corrections, both shared the message of diversion and keeping those with mental illness away from incarceration.
With so much more to process on the drive home that evening, I couldn’t help but reflect back to comments from a speaker during our session on healthcare during December. Steven Rowe, President of Endowment for Health, was discussing the high rate of substance abuse by teens in NH. He picked up somebody’s Dunkin Donuts coffee cup and pointed to the seasonal message on it and said, “This is why. It’s all about this.” He pointed to the word “Hope.” He said, “These kids have lost their hope for the future. If you don’t have hope for the future, you don’t have anything.”
In a topic as wide, broad and filled with problems as criminal justice, it would be easy to be overwhelmed, to give up and carry on as status quo. Yet through our assigned homework reading, our PPO ride along opportunities, the drug court visit and the speakers who shared their wisdom with us, I saw pockets of opportunities within our state, and I was filled with hope as I drove home at the end of the day.