Don’t handcuff Maine to new prison

Posted April 15, 2013, at 1:18 p.m.
Last modified April 16, 2013, at 2:35 p.m.
John E. Nale is an elder law attorney with offices in Waterville.
Courtesy photo
John E. Nale is an elder law attorney with offices in Waterville.

The governor really should do more homework before he handcuffs this state to a new $100 million, 1,200 - bed prison facility. The truth of the matter is that the $100 million covers only the cost of the bricks and mortar. Repayment of the $100 million bond over 20 years with interest, together with the cost to house, feed, clothe, supervise and provide health care to 1,200 inmates brings the cost just shy of $100 million a year, ad infinitum.

Is this really how we want to spend our precious tax dollars?

Don’t forget, just 15 short years ago, the state built a new 916-bed prison in Warren, and several new county jails have been built as well. And we still have a 60 -percent repeat offender rat e.

Alternatives to the brick-and-mortar approach to reduce crime and inmate population growth have been recommended in the past but not implemented. I respectfully suggest that with this new prison proposal on the table, now is the time to re-evaluate what we are doing and how we are doing it.

Two principal variables govern the number of inmates in prison: the number of admissions and the length of time an inmate remains behind bars. These two variables are impacted more by policy decisions than by a corresponding increase in crime or general population growth. Our crime rate, thankfully, has remained constant and is the lowest in the nation. Our general population growth has been slow, if not stagnant, with 99 percent of future growth expected to be in the 65 years and older age group, according to the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

We could implement three proven effective and less costly policy changes that would surely alleviate the need for a new and bigger prison.

First, at the front end of the pipeline, the number of admissions can be reduced substantially through greater investment in quality early childhood education for at-risk children. Investment in early childhood education like Educare Central Maine and Head Start have been shown to have the highest return on investment over the long term. One study that followed at-risk children into adulthood showed that participation in early childhood education dramatically reduced participation in juvenile and adult crime and increased high school graduation rates, which increase employment and earnings, with a total benefit-cost ratio of 16 to one.

Second, while few doubt or question the necessity of locking up violent criminals and those who repeatedly threaten community safety, there is room to diversify the menu of sanctions that save money but still insure that the public is protected and offenders are held accountable. We should embrace a strategy that blends incentives for reduced recidivism with greater use of community supervision for lower risk offenders, such as expansion of drug treatment and mental illness programs, day reporting centers, electronic monitoring systems and community service. These strategies make offenders pay for their wrongdoing and keeps prison beds available for more violent and chronic lawbreakers.

The third policy change is directed at the length of time inmates remain locked up. We should permit and encourage an inmate to earn “good time” credits that shorten an inmate’s term. While an inmate can now earn credits if they complete rehabilitation or education programs, demonstrate good behavior or meet other self-improvement benchmarks, such rehabilitation and education programs are very hard to come by and have long inmate waiting lists. This strategy could be blended with other incentives that reduce recidivism, such as imposing sanctions other than prison time for inmates who violate “technical” conditions of probation, such as missing a counseling session or failing to timely report to a probation officer.

These policy changes can be implemented without sacrificing public safety. We can continue to protect our communities, punish lawbreakers and conserve precious tax dollars for other pressing public needs. The facts and suggestions set forth above are not new. I am not the first to offer these alternatives to the brick-and-mortar approach.

In February, 2004, a 17-member commission created by the Legislature was charged with reducing the state’s prison population. The commission, made up of legislators, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and mental health advocates, issued a 100-page report that outlined these and other recommendations. Nowhere in the report is there a hint of a need to build a new $100-million, 1,200-bed prison as a means to reduce crime and inmate population.

With a proposed $100-million, 1,200-bed prison facility on the table, now is the time to re-evaluate how we want to handle this matter in the future. Do we continue to keep doing what we have been doing and, therefore, keep getting the same results, or do we try a different approach?

As stated in the commission’s report, we do have less costly, more effective alternatives for reducing crime and the inmate population. Reading the commission’s report would be a good first homework assignment for anybody proposing a new prison.

John E. Nale is an elder law lawyer with offices in Waterville and served as chairman of the Maine Industries Advisory Council from 2008 to 2012. He may be contacted at 660-9191 or john@nalelaw.com.

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