Inmates to meet with friendly lawmakers

The trustee prisoners on the Inmate Communications Committee will entertain some VIPs May 1 at 10:30 a.m. Members of the House Criminal Justice Committee will sit down with them to learn more about giving prisoners time off their sentences for serious efforts at self-improvement. Lawmakers have retained two earned time credit bills for further study. That research includes interviewing some cellblock experts.

Rep. Mary Stuart Gile sponsored HB 649 to give earned time credits to inmates age 25 and younger for classes and treatment programs, including the Family Connections Center for prisoners with kids.. At a committee work session Apr. 25, she was willing to merge her bill with HB 404. It would give chances for earned time to all offenders. 

“I just want young inmates to leave with a job skill and a GED or diploma,” Gile explained. “Recidivism has been high for that age group. I hope earned time could help keep them from coming back.” 

The committee researcher, Atty. James Cianci, is learning more about the 31 states that give earned time.  State officials fear litigation if New Hampshire reduces the sentences for some inmates, but not for others ineligible through no fault of their own. 

Rep. Gene Charron, the former Rockingham County jail superintendent, urged all the stakeholders to seek common ground and get a bill passed. 

“I’ve seen huge reforms at the county (jail) level,” Charron said. “It won’t happen at the state level if the Department of Corrections opposes it. Let’s come up with something palatable to everyone.”

Laura Pantelakos, the Criminal Justice Committee chair, took part in a commission to study the effect of truth in sentencing some years ago. That 1982 law repealed a practice of giving prisoners good time off their sentences. Prisoners now serve their full minimum terms. The earned time bills would repeal truth in sentencing.

“We had 284 prisoners in 1984 (two years after truth in sentencing took force),” Pantelakos said. “We had 2,680 in 2004. It heavily affected the system.” 

Jeff Lyons, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, reminded lawmakers the prisons are badly strapped for resources. 

“We still haven’t finished cutting $7 million from our appropriation required in the back of the budget.” he said.

Corrections has until June 30 to implement the remainder of those cuts for the current fiscal year. Most of the savings have already been achieved by leaving authorized staff positions vacant.

Atty. Sandra Matheson, who heads the victim advocacy unit in the Attorney General’s Office, asked lawmakers to limit earned time to nonviolent prisoners. 

“I implore you, no matter what you do, that you’re not talking about violent criminals (getting sentence reductions), she said. 

“We’ll certainly take your comments into consideration,” Pantelakos said. “But I marvel at my co-chair (Rep. Renny Cushing, who lost a loved one to murder). I’ve never heard him say he wants offenders to stay in jail forever.” 

Pantelakos noted a violent offender in prison for 27 years who deserves earned time for all he has done to become a good citizen when he leaves. 

“I’m disturbed the department of corrections is so afraid of lawsuits over this,” Pantelakos said.. “We certainly can’t afford litigation. But we don’t need truth in sentencing either. I’ve never liked truth in sentencing.” 

Senate voting on half a dozen crime bills May 2 

A bill sponsored by CCJR, HB 165, will probably die on the Senate floor Thursday. It would set up a legislative committee to study and suggest ways to improve the sex offender public registry. The bill left the Senate Judiciary Committee with a 5-0 vote against it. 

Sen. Bette Lasky, often a supporter of criminal justice reform, wrote this blurb against the bill. 

“This legislation sought to establish another study committee to look into the sex offender registry,” she said in the Senate calendar. “The stakeholders already meet on a regular basis and bring needed legislation forward. Therefore establishing another study committee at this time is not necessary.” 

That was partly true. A dozen competing experts called together by CCJR have met informally three times to talk about sex offender policies. Five people came to the last meeting because of a blizzard, and the future of the group is uncertain. We’ll try to give it some life again when the 2013 legislative session is over. The stakeholders agreed to ask lawmakers to study the public registry themselves by passing HB 165.

Other bills at stake this Thursday

HB 450-FN, relative to the annulment of criminal records. Ought to Pass with Amendment, Vote 5-0.

This bill requires that records of annulled arrests, convictions, and sentences be sealed and requires the state police criminal records unit to remove an annulled criminal record upon payment of the required fee. 

HB 621-FN, decriminalizing possession of one quarter of an ounce or less of marijuana. Inexpedient to Legislate, Vote 5-0.. Supporters of legalized pot have tried year after year to treat addiction as medical problem instead of incarcerating small time users. They’ll probably have to try again next year. Ooops. Make that in 2015. No defeated bill can return in the second year of the biennium. 

HB 153, prohibiting the designation of industrial hemp as a controlled substance. Committee advice: Re-refer to committee, Vote 4-1. Hemp has the same stimulant as pot and can be used for getting high. 

HB 644-FN, relative to parole procedures and relative to sanctions for violations of probation. Ought to Pass with Amendment, Vote 5-0. The bill extends to probation officers the power to send prisoners to jail for a day or two instead of busting them to serve their entire deferred sentence. Parole officers already have similar intermediate sanction powers.

Senate Judiciary hearing Tuesday, Apr.. 30 in State House 100 

9 a.m.  HB 224 to give jail superintendents wider powers to release inmates for jobs, classes and community service. Supports of prison reform testified for the bill in the House. County officials want to get their low risk inmates out into the community to save taxpayers money, help offenders keep their jobs, and preserve their families of possible.