Addiction and mental illness are modern problems facing a criminal justice system that is more than two centuries old.

“The roots of [the state’s] criminal justice system come out of the countyships,”  says Albert Scherr, UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law professor and chair of the school’s international criminal law and justice program.

Cheshire, Grafton, Hillsborough, Rockingham and Strafford Counties were formed 250 years ago when New Hampshire was still an English colony. The state’s department of safety and city police, he says, are relatively more recent — “It’s a deeply entrenched historical phenomena.”

How this deep-rooted system functions depends on each community’s wealth and attitudes of its elected officials, leading to inherent inequities.

Houses of corrections are overseen by county commissioners, who are tasked with conserving county budgets while providing necessary services.

And, at the end of the day, says Strafford County attorney Tom Velardi, county officials need to decide whether to direct limited revenues into corrections, the nursing home or the deeds office.

Velardi, who presides over the NH Association of County Attorneys, says commissioners face tough decisions, especially in communities with tax caps. “This is an antiquated system that worked 250 years ago, when jail populations were very, very small.”

Does Centralization Work?

New Hampshire’s county-level approach is structured similarly with other corrections systems in the country. In all but six states — Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island, Alaska and Hawaii — the jails are run by county corrections agencies. The reasons these six states shifted to a unified system, where the state oversees and funds all correctional facilties, vary.

Rhode Island, the first to abolish its county-level approach, did so in 1956 to save money by centralizing corrections, according to a 1997 report from the National Institute of Corrections, the most recent study on the topic to date. In 1967, Connecticut revamped to “achieve more efficiency in corrections and to encourage professionalism;” Hawaii’s move in the late 70s was in part to “facilitate its treatment and rehabilitation philosophy.”

And while in theory centralized jail systems better integrate inmates with drug rehabilitation and other social service programs, “it’s never as coordinated as we want it to be,” says University of Connecticut-Hartford assistant professor Melanie Newport, who studies urban criminal justice systems in the United States.

In response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2011 to shrink California’s prison population, state officials aimed to redirect lower-level federal felons out of state prisons and into local jails.

The result was “a complete backfire,” says Newport. A 2019 investigation by McClatchy ProPublica, demonstrated that “inmates are dying in markedly higher numbers.” The report also mentions that county jails were understaffed and underprepared to manage longer sentences for those with complex mental health issues and violent behaviors.

“It turns out local jails didn’t have the programs to support those people,” says Newport.

On the other hand, officials in Rhode Island have attributed the quick rollout of MAT across its correctional facilities several years ago to the fact that the system is unified and the state could oversee all facets of the implementation.

Does Local Control Matter?

How defendants are treated and reintroduced to the community is often a function of zip code. One of Cheshire County’s delegates, State Rep. Paul Berch, D-Westmoreland, applauds that local control because of the symbiotic relationship between the corrections department and multiple community resources.

“We feel at times a long way from Concord [the state capitol],” he says, “and to run tweaks and changes through Concord is a very different process from running tweaks and changes through your own county processes.”

But attorney Michael Lewis, a shareholder at Rath, Young and Pignatelli and an adjunct professor at the UNH School of Law, sees inefficiencies in local autonomy. He argues there’s a “risk that really good actors will get dragged down by efforts to make uniform our system. But rather than capitulate to that risk, it seems incumbent on us to bring everybody up.”

Nancy Fishman, project director in the Center on Sentencing and Corrections for the Vera Institute, a public policy think tank, says a localized approach offers both opportunities and challenges.

The challenge is “there’s no common language,” says Fishman. There are no national accreditations, no established requirements for who can work in a jail and no unified systems to measure recidivism.

The opportunity is that, “decisions can be made in a different way.” And because of that, says Fishman, a lot of places choose to tweak processes from the point of arrest to post conviction, achieving good results.

When it comes to measuring evidence-based practices, Fishman says the national data is lacking because of the inconsistent methods locally controlled and funded jails use to tally metrics.

In New Hampshire, “I think [state officials] wouldn’t want to figure out how to correlate 10 different sets of data from 10 different county jails,” says Velardi. The yardsticks vary and “you come up with absolutely nothing that’s usable potentially.”

 

— Sheryl Rich-Kern