House committee works on earned time bills

The House Criminal Justice Committee will hold work sessions Tuesday, April 22, and Thursday, April 24, on two bills to give prisoners credit off their minimum sentences for improving themselves through courses and treatment programs. HB 404 would give that opportunity to all inmates and HB 649 would give it to prisoners age 25 or younger. Both meetings start at 10 a.m. in Room 204 of the Legislative Office Building.

The House killed a similar bill last year when the Department of Corrections opposed it as an invitation for lawsuits on equal protection grounds. The House majority leader at the time, DJ Bettencourt, led an emotional House floor fight that barely scuttled the bill. He said it violated the venerable tradition of truth in sentencing.

The department is taking the same stand this year. Through no fault of their own, assistant commissioner Bill McGonagle testified, some inmates would have little chance to use one or more avenues to early release. A drug free and sober inmate without mental health issues would be ineligible for most of the treatment options. Similarly, someone with a high school diploma would have no chance at time off for getting a GED.

Bill supporters are documenting the success of similar laws in other New England states in hopes of saving one or both bills. The Criminal Justice Committee can vote them down soon or back them and reintroduce them next year.

HB 649 would give time off only to inmates age 25 or younger in a pilot project that might expand if it succeeds. That bill would also let fathers reduce their bids by going to a parenting program. The department told lawmakers that childless prisoners would be at a disadvantage.

National interest groups may be watching these bills closely. The prime sponsor of last year’s earned time bill, former Rep. David Welch, lost in the GOP primary election when opponents heavily outspent him. Several out-of-state conservative groups sent mailings attacking him the last week of the campaign.

Bettencourt, ironically, was forced to resign his House seat for making a false report he completed a UNH Law School internship at the office of Republican Rep. Brandon Giuda. In a better world Bettencourt might have earned some time himself.