When the news broke about the potential of the show COPS coming to Manchester for filming, my social media feeds were inundated with reactions. There were those who supported the idea, those who felt neutral, and many who were adamantly opposed to having their city showcased in such a way. New Hampshire has, traditionally, been a state with low violent crime rates, a safe place to raise a family.
Despite our low violent crime rates, New Hampshire still experiences high incarceration rates. The state’s prison population increased by 891 percent between 1980 and 2008, a fact many feel is attributable to our nation’s war on drugs. The policies put in place to combat drugs on our streets have placed a high number of nonviolent offenders, especially women and minorities, behind bars. Minimum sentencing standards often place those suffering from addiction and/or mental illness into our correctional facilities with little or no services available upon release. Couple this with fact that it costs roughly $35,000 to $38,000 annually to house one inmate in New Hampshire and it is clear that we will quickly find ourselves in a budget (and space) crisis if we do not consider alternatives to incarceration.
States and cities across the United States are passing bipartisan bills to combat the practices of incarcerating non-violent offenders. Connecticut, for example, recently passed sweeping reforms to combat high inmate rates through alternative systems and sentencing structures. Simple drug possessions have been reclassified from felonies to misdemeanors, and the parole system has been modified to more effectively address non-violent offenders. If there is one thing we have learned from the war on drugs, it’s that we cannot successfully arrest our way out of the problem.
New Hampshire has the opportunity to be on the right side of history on matters relating to criminal justice reform. Legislators and leaders can work together to find ways to address our state’s addiction crisis without adding to our already overcrowded correctional facilities, through reforms and alternative sentencing. The time is now for us to reduce felony drugs possessions to misdemeanors, to build on the systems we already have in place, such as drug courts and addiction centers, and to adequately fund the services needed to effectively rehabilitate those who are living with addiction and mental health disorders. If successful, New Hampshire could, once again, find itself in the spotlight as a model of how to overcome a crisis and chart a new path forward.
Allyson Ryder serves as the associate director of Leadership New Hampshire.