To the Editor:
Is it wise to downsize the Alternative to Incarceration (ATI) program? Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank wants to cut funding for this program by 80 percent. The program was intended to reduce the jail population by focusing on drug addiction in particular, thus preventing the need for building more expensive jail space in the future.
For those who have not kept up with these developments, the ATI program was put in place in Anderson County a year ago by Mike Baker, a longtime officer in the Iowa corrections system. His analysis of Anderson County’s constantly increasing number of jail inmates points to several problems, one of which is “recidivism” (when a former prisoner returns to jail).
He commented that “Anderson County has a tremendously high recidivism rate. When I looked at the jail stats this morning, the average number of ‘priors’ for the 348 inmates incarcerated was nearly 10, while the average age of the inmates is 31. Those numbers indicate that inmates between the ages of 18 and 31 are being arrested on average nearly once each year.”
Baker also pointed out that drug crimes are up, accounting for many of the arrests. Most of those arrested are housed in the jail until they are sentenced. The average time an offender spends in jail has increased from 17 days last year to 19 days currently, indicating that processing cases is taking longer. Each occupied jail bed costs the county $60 per day or $20,000 per year, plus medical expenses.
Clearly reducing addiction among prisoners should result in cost saving for Anderson County taxpayers. Baker’s approach is to analyze each prisoner’s risks and needs and then provide a program that will best suit him or her individually. Such a program can include counseling as a part of sentencing, counseling in the jail and, upon release, community support groups, to name only a few of the possibilities.
According to Baker, many studies have shown that treatment interventions reduce recidivism. In 54 studies, the “ICCA Journal on Community Corrections” reported that, with appropriate treatment, recidivism is reduced by 30 percent. If the jail is housing 348 persons per day, a 30 percent reduction in the number of inmates would result in a savings of over $2,000 per day, $14,000 per week, and well over $56,000 per month. Furthermore, reduction in crime and the return of young men and women to their families reduces many costs to society in addition to the costs of incarceration.
In a limited number of words, it’s not possible to explain the many solutions to typical inmate problems that Baker envisioned. We know that such programs have been successful in other places. Can we afford to continue with only 20 percent of the funds allocated to this program, a reduction from $300,000 to $58,000? We may save money now, but projections show that we will pay dearly in future building costs as the number of inmates grows.
Feeling a lack of support from some in the Anderson County judiciary and the administration, Mike Baker has resigned from his position as director of the ATI. Nonetheless, it is still possible to implement some of his initiatives IF at least a substantial portion of the original funds are replaced.
The next Anderson County Commission meeting to discuss the proposed budget will be at 6 p.m. today (Thursday, June 13) in Room 312 at the Anderson County Courthouse. Additional meetings are possible. Visit http:// www.andersontn.org/commission.html or call (865) 463-6866.