Friday, May 25, 2012
INEQUITY: Politics and Felony Population Distribution
During a March committee hearing about a bill that addressed Good Landlord Programs in the State, a comment was made by a member of the Ogden City administration about the need for the program. It was declared that the program was specifically created to help mitigate the large felony population that the State dumps in Ogden via State run halfway houses. The claim was made that over half of the State run halfway houses are in Ogden.
I was shocked by this claim. When our Session ended, I came home and started to do some research to check the veracity of the comment. What I found surprised me.
As it turns out, the State of Utah isn't doing Weber County any favors when it comes to equally distributing inmates in halfway houses. Here are some charts to illustrate:
As you can see, Weber County comprises just 8.24% of the State's population. Salt Lake County accounts for 36.7%.
So how is the halfway house inmate population distributed? Queue the chart please...
As you can see, Weber County has 46% of all the halfway house beds in the state. What an onerous distinction!
Amazingly, all of this burden is concentrated in one robust facility located on Watertower Way near I-15 and 24th Street.
Built in 1996, this facility has many resources under one roof to serve a host of inmate rehabilitation needs. On the surface, the State and the taxpayer seem to be getting some economies of scale with this facility. Yet, lurking in the shadows are some significant and unintended consequences from creating such a large facility.
Among those are a decrease in inmate rehabilitation. Indeed, success rates at the Weber County NUCCC facility are just 48%. I toured the facility with staff and interviewed them on their perceptions of the system. They agreed that smaller facilities are more successful in rehabilitation than larger ones because smaller facilities create a tighter family atmosphere where inmates become invested in each other's success. Large facilities create anonymity and a warehouse atmosphere. Thus, success is impeded. That lack of success has a dollar tag attached to it in the form of prolonged incarcerations, property loss and damage from reoffending, and increased law enforcement costs to capture and prosecute reoffenders.
Another drawback is that while the State as a whole may obtain efficiencies in scale for the facility, the community in which it is placed must deal with the population that leaves the facility. It is commonly asserted that offenders return to their hometowns after leaving a halfway house facility. Data from a 2003 study shows that this is not true. Here are the results of that study:
As you can see, almost 20% of inmates that arrive from other areas STAY in Ogden after their release. Over time, this net gain in felony population affects the quality of life in the surrounding community. Hence, Ogden's pioneering of the Good Landlord Program.
So what is to be done? In talking about the issue with my legislative colleauges, there appear to be several daunting challenges to changing the status quo.
First, the NIMBY (not in my back yard) sentiment is very strong. Obviously, any reduction in the number of beds in Ogden would mean an increase in beds somewhere else. It's like trying to find a friendly harbor for spent nuclear waste. Most of my colleagues who I spoke to about this issue vowed to vote against any change because they didn't want to tell their constituents they supported bringing felons to their neighborhood.
Second, the infrastructure costs are very expensive. In a time when our capital maintenance and expenditures are under strain, spending new money on acquiring and building new facilities is politically difficult to justify in light of other demands for taxpayer money (i.e. education).
I find my colleagues' sentiments discouraging. It would be ideal for communities to take care of their own inmates locally. The small scale would promote success and the budget would be of small impact in the long run. Also, since the NUCCC facility in Weber County is so new, it will likely be a decade or more before it obsolesces and new funds can be justified to create a new facility. Whenever that occurs though, that will be the time to strike on this issue.
In the meantime, let's hope that there is a paradigm shift in correction circles of how our inmates should be distributed across the State. If we are seriously interested in successful rehabilitation of our inmate population, this needs to happen.