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Bar News - July 17, 2009


State Budget Funds NH-DOC Community Corrections Division

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Progress in sentencing and incarceration reform may be one of the few bright spots of an extremely tight budget season. Using savings from the closing of the Laconia prison site and cutting costs in other areas, the Department of Corrections (NH-DOC) is creating a Community Corrections Division.

NH Corrections Department Commissioner William Wrenn hopes this new division will help shift the focus of NH corrections from containing risks to reducing the prison population and providing more intensive supervision and treatment of offenders in the community.

A casualty of the creation of the new division, however, is the elimination of the Probation Academy Program often called just the Academy Program in all but two locations Manchester and Grafton County.

The Academy Program, which was established in 1996, falls under the umbrella of the Field Services Division, which also oversees probation and parole services. The program consists of a yearlong punishment and rehabilitation course which teaches participants to manage many of the stresses that lead to criminal behavior and teaches everything from proper nutrition and living skills to drug abuse treatment and counseling.

"The sad irony is that we had to make a lot of cuts, and that provided the opportunity and impetus to get this done," said NH-DOC Assistant Director William McGonagle.

McGonagle has served as the Assitant Director for the past five years and has been involved in both adult and juvenile corrections for more than 20 years. He is tasked with developing the structure of the new division and will oversee its implementation.

He and Commissioner Wrenn both believe that although the Department of Corrections will have to sacrifice the department also closed the Laconia State Prison the creation of a Community Corrections Division will shift the focus of New Hampshire corrections from risk containment to stabilization and reduction of the overall prison population.

The idea behind Community Corrections which is modeled on several programs implemented in other states is simple: Provide the necessary counseling and social services in the community rather than in the prison and ease the transition of inmates back into the community.

"We need to correct the drivers of the bad behaviors, like mental illness and substance abuse," said Wrenn. "That would keep inmates from coming to the prison in the first place."

Initially the Community Corrections Division will consist of four District Offices in Concord, Exeter, Keene and Nashua. Eventually, corrections officials hope to add district offices in Claremont, Dover, Laconia and Ossipee. The offices will be staffed by counselors and caseworkers who, says McGonagle, will "act as a brokering service to community resources," putting probationers and parolees in touch with substance abuse treatment and mental health care centers, and would also assist in finding housing and work for participants.

McGonagle says that the staff of each district office will work hand-in-hand with Field Services staff and will serve as brokers to the program participants, putting them in touch with a variety of community resources mental healthcare, low-income healthcare, drug abuse treatment and will also assist participants in housing and job searches.

In the past, says McGonagle, the corrections department has required probation and parole officers to be social workers on top of their usual duties, and that, he says, "waters down their ability to effectively manage a caseload." Now they will have options.

"The probation/parole officer would be the director of each case and they would work hand-in-hand with the district office to provide a better handoff from the prison system to the community," said McGonagle. "Community Corrections gives the officers another arrow in the quiver when someone is on the verge of re-offending."

New parolees will automatically enter into community corrections and current probationers and parolees may be recommended by a probation/parole officer. As the program stabilizes, McGonagle and Wrenn both see Community Corrections as a potential diversion program, where, rather than receiving prison sentences, participants would work with the Community Corrections Division along with Field Services. This diversion program aspect is what will eventually take the place of the current Academy Program.

Within the next week, McGonagle said, he will start meeting with current staff to identify the various positions needed to run the division. Also on tap is the hiring of a Director of Community Corrections. McGonagle says that the program should be up and running by autumn.

"This is absolutely the way that corrections needs to go. We can have the best programs in the prison to help, but then people get out into the community with nothing," said Wrenn. "We need to develop community contacts. This division will address those needs."

The Midyear Meeting CLE at which Wrenn spoke is now available online.

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