NH Public Policy
New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies

Prison Projections 2008: The Once and Future New Hampshire Corrections Population

Executive Summary

Date: March 16th, 2009

The number of inmates in the New Hampshire state prison system increased 560% in twenty-five years, from 394 inmates in 1982 to 2,615 in 2007. Factors commonly associated with increases in a state’s prison population fail to explain the extraordinary rise in the number of New Hampshire state prison inmates. As shown in Table 1 below, New Hampshire’s resident population, number of people living in poverty, and number of violent crimes have not increased as fast as the number of inmates held in New Hampshire’s state prisons. In fact, while the number of state prison inmates increased almost six times from 1982 to 2007, the number of property crimes and the number of arrests for all crimes in New Hampshire actually declined. 

Table 1
NH Prison
NH Resident
NH Residents
in Poverty
NH Total
Drug Arrests
Violent Crimes
Property Crimes
Percent Change

* New Hampshire arrest data is from 1987


Since the increase in state prison inmates cannot be attributed to increases in population, residents in poverty, violent crimes, or drug arrests, we propose that growth in the New Hampshire state prison population has been caused primarily by policy changes within the criminal justice system. These policies include more severe penalties for violent and non-violent criminal offenses, longer sentences for offenders, and increasingly harsh penalties for recidivism. In addition, there is no consistent, statewide use of alternative sentencing or release support programs, and state operated mental health treatment infrastructure has been reduced.


Without changes in the underlying policies, our baseline projection model suggests that the prison population could increase by as much as four hundred prisoners in 10 years, slightly fewer than are currently held in the Berlin prison.  There is no shortage of policy options that could change the growth in the corrections system. The recommendations of the Citizen’s Commission on the State Courts (2006), the draft 2009 report from the “Commission To Study The Sentencing, Incarceration, And Recidivism Of Criminal Offenders In Order To Enhance Public Safety And Improve The Criminal Justice System's Cost Effectiveness” (SB484), reports to the Interagency Coordinating Council for Women Offenders, currently proposed corrections legislation, and the corrections-related proposals outlined in Governor Lynch’s 2010-2011 budget each provide policy proposals. 


Taken together, these proposals provide a comprehensive roadmap to establishing a new baseline for managing the corrections system’s process for rehabilitating offenders. The main aspects of these policy steps are: 

  • Review the state criminal justice code to ensure that the state has struck the right balance between public safety and incarceration.   Half the offenders in state prison have been incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Current law hinders developing appropriate and cost effective approaches for addressing relatively minor and/or non-violent offenses. Sentencing policies, like “Truth-In-Sentencing”, have increased the state prison population with no demonstrable improvement in public safety. The newly reformed Inter-branch Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice should seek to revise the criminal justice code in light of the economic and social changes that have occurred since this practice was established.
  • Continue to review and analyze the implementation of alternatives to traditional jail and prison sentences. Pretrial diversion programs, problem solving courts, community corrections and other alternatives to incarceration should be uniformly available throughout the State of New Hampshire. A consistent array of alternatives and sanctions is not available statewide, and the quality and commitment to community correction programs vary greatly from one county to another. In addition, the current separation of county and state corrections systems creates a potential disincentive for state prison-bound inmates to be sentenced to alternative programs administered by the counties. Consideration should be given to merging the county and state corrections systems to ensure equal offender access to alternative programs across the state. 
  • Increase the focus on re-entry support, including substance abuse and job training for inmates, as well as community supports more broadly.  This research has shown that recidivism is the largest contributor to annual admissions to the state prison. Re-offending and relapse are often tied to substance abuse and mental illness. The state would be better served by investing in the establishment of substance abuse programs that address needs present in all aspects of the criminal justice system, rather than expanding existing prison capacity.

To provide policy-makers with an understanding of the potential impacts of these types of programs, this paper examines past and projected trends in New Hampshire’s state prison population.   In addition, we present several alternatives to incarceration, and measure their impact on the prison population forecast for New Hampshire. 

Report File