June update on 2016 Crime Bills

Prisoners and their families can celebrate two N. H. State House victories this year. One is the governor’s signing of HB 1426 to increase from 13 to 21 months the time a prisoner can earn off his or her sentence by taking courses and rehab programs. The other is an in-depth performance audit of the sex offender treatment program. Here is a report on bills we spoke for and against. On balance, the criminal law is probably worse and tougher now than it was last year. We need to fight back better next time. You can help. We’re at P.O. Box 3942, Concord, NH  03302-3942 • (603) 832-1555 • info@ccjrnh.org

HB 1426 to let prisoners earn up to 21 months off their sentences by participating in rehabilitative or educational programming.  This crucial bill increases from 13 to 21 months the time a prisoner can earn off his or her sentence by taking academic courses and rehabilitative programs. The legislation easily passed both houses, a major victory for the incarcerated. Gov. Hassan signed it without fanfare into law June 3.  Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform worked hard for HB 1426, and the Department of Corrections played an even bigger role. It met for many months with the trustee prisoners on the Inmate Communications Committee to craft the bill’s language. The legislation restores another small part of the 150 days per year of good time that prisoners lost in 1982, when that route to early release was repealed. For three decades we’ve seen tougher and tougher crime laws until now. 

HB 1369 requiring judges to grant earned time credits when a prisoner has substantially reduced the threat he or she poses to the public.  This bill we wrote faced strong opposition in the House and died there. We worked with the Inmate Communications Committee for two years to help pass the 13-month sentence reduction law in 2015, which several judges are ignoring. The prisoners we see getting shot down in Superior Court have all served long sentences for rape, murder or burglaries. Those are precisely the people who would make the public safer if they could measurably improve themselves inside the walls. It’s a concept lawmakers either fail to understand or think they can’t get voters to understand. We need to build a strong coalition of loved ones of prisoners to teach the public the value of improving all prisoners. Join us. 

SB 338 to let crime victims make confidential statements to the parole board.  This bill written by the State Police would have authorized the Parole Board to take secret victim testimony against a prisoner to keep him or her from gaining release. That’s been going on for decades, but it violates the fundamental right of inmates and defendants to know all the evidence for and against them. We helped to ambush the bill at its hearing, and the Senate tabled it. The troubling part is that Helen Hanks of the Department of Corrections brought in several crime victims who told their stories and asked to keep giving secret Parole Board testimony. Hanks knew the Parole Board had adopted a very different process this fall in a deal with victim advocates. The two sides agreed that a victim could give testimony at a Parole hearing or have someone read it for them. The inmate would always hear that testimony, but could never get a copy of it. That solution is flawed, but it’s much better than HB 338. Victims can no longer give secret comments to the Parole Board. Let me repeat that. Victims can no longer give secret comments to the Parole Board. 

HB 1690 extending the New Hampshire health protection program.  We gave testimony Feb. 17 for this hugely important bill, which would safeguard the state’s new health insurance coverage for thousands of former inmates. An army of human service agencies and advocates for the poor also fought for it. In the end, Republicans forced insurance providers and hospitals to cover a $50 million shortfall in funding for a state program that brings in half a million federal dollars, much of it for former prisoners. In our opinion, the legislature should have funded this critical program with tax dollars in last year’s budget. Fortunately, few incumbents want to run for re-election having repealed the insurance coverage for nearly 50,000 low income people. 

HB 1113 requiring a performance audit of the sex offender treatment program. This bill we wrote sailed through the House, but died in the Senate after everyone spoke in favor of it at the House and Senate hearings, including the Department of Corrections. The chair of the Senate Committee kept his previous promise, though, to launch the audit through the Joint Legislative Audits Committee he also chairs. The audit started in late April, and three of us from CCJR had an in-depth interview with the auditors on May 10. The mere threat of HB 1113 forced the Department of Corrections to hire three more teachers for the sex offender program in late  summer. One of them soon quit, along with the program’s director, leaving it badly understaffed yet again. Prison officials told us as early as August 2014 that only six inmates were waiting in the backlog to take this program. No sex offender can make parole without completing this program. Officials stood by that low number for the next 10 months. We told them the backlog had to be much larger, and now the truth is coming out. We are received statements from dozens of prisoners in May about the sex offender treatment program, which we summarized for the auditors in a recent confidential report. Our mailing to do that went out to prisoners and recent sex offender parolees on May 4. We are sure the Department of Corrections intercepted most of those letters. None of them reached any of the 50 parolees we tried to get comments from. Below is some data the auditors recently gave lawmakers about the sex offender program. It shows that prison officials are pushing unmates through the program as fast as possible now, even releasing 40 men them without ever taking the program.  

HB 1541 prohibiting placement of certain persons with a mental illness in the secure psychiatric unit, and authorizing the commissioner of the department of corrections to seek therapeutic alternatives.  Beatrice Coulter, a former CCJR board member, worked closely with the bill’s sponsor, testified for it, and will serve on a study commission it helped to create. That was a good outcome. New Hampshire may be the last state that still houses people in prison who have never been convicted of a crime. Below is a letter to the Concord Monitor for the bill by CCJR treasurer Jeremy Olson. 

Letter: Prison as treatment

For the Monitor  Tuesday, January 12, 2016 

Recent news articles have exposed the dubious practice of housing civilly committed patients at the Secure Psychiatric Unit in the men’s prison in Concord. The state improperly uses that site as an extension of New Hampshire Hospital. Non-criminals live with felons. We have created two classes of civilly committed individuals, those who receive good care in a hospital and those who exist in de facto incarceration. The state has a moral obligation to give all its vulnerable citizens equal and proper treatment.

New Hampshire Hospital is eligible for federal funding as an accredited behavioral health care facility. It has an expert multidisciplinary staff and a therapeutic environment under the umbrella of Health and Human Services. The Secure Psychiatric Unit, in contrast, has little expertise in behavioral health management. Correctional officers run it with a paramilitary culture of security and punishment. It is the most restrictive possible venue, and it receives no federal reimbursement.

Using the prison for non-adjudicated people with mental illness shows that the behavioral health system is so fiscally starved that compassion and civil rights are unimportant. The behavioral health needs of New Hampshire have increased dramatically in recent years. The Legislature must fund a suitable forensic behavioral health care facility under Health and Human Services. That’s the best practice everywhere else.

We must never forget the snake pits of the former Laconia State School and, most recently, the Lakeview Rehab Center in Effingham. Prison is an unacceptable option for those who have committed no crimes and are severely mentally ill.  JEREMY J. OLSON

HB 1603  requiring the registration of drug dealers.  We were worried at the Feb. 18 public hearing after three Dartmouth University students gave a long power point talk in favor of the bill. Fortunately, a dozen people opposed that idea, including the Department of Safety. So did we, arguing that half a dozen other kinds of criminals would soon get registered, and those lists would eventually become public like the sex offender registry. Lawmakers overwhelmingly killed the bill, but praised the students. 

HB 1628 relative to human trafficking involving persons under 18 years of age. We spoke against this bill because it imposes 3.5 to 7 years of prison time on the customer of a prostitute age 16 or 17 who lies about their age. One of the bill’s supporters, a county attorney, said four young prostitutes arrested two years ago had hundreds of customers who might have been convicted under this legislation. We oppose efforts to crowd our prisons without questioning the severity of the punishments. Yes, it is unquestionably wrong to be a John. The current misdemeanor punishment of up to a year in prison would seem adequate. The really bad guys are the pimps. This bill about to become law might cause one or two of them to beat or kill a young prostitute suspected of thinking about talking to the authorities. 

SB 463-FN to suspend the imposition of the death penalty. After a six-hour public hearing packed with supporters, the bill came out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with a 3-1 vote of Ought to Pass. We gave testimony for the bill, which died on the Senate floor as feared. That vote was a 12-12 tie, and tie votes scuttle bills. But know this. The New Hampshire Coalition Against the Death Penalty has forged a huge repeal alliance, and it will only get bigger. We are a small part of it, and we will all be back.

HB 1552 extending the penalty of death to acts of terrorism and civil rights offenses.  We missed the Feb. 19 hearing on this bill, but it only had one sponsor, Rep. Jack Flanagan, the House majority leader.  Fortunately, his legislation was going nowhere, because death penalty repeal bills have strong support in the House.  

HB 1330 to add a former prisoner to the interbranch criminal and juvenile justice council. This bill we wrote died in the House with opposition from Superior Court Justice Tina Nadeau and the Interbranch Criminal Justice Council she chars. The legislation would have appointed an ex-offender to serve on that board. We recruited a good turnout of bill supporters for the public hearing, but it stood little chance in a House committee packed with former cops, prosecutors and jailers. The committee voted against it 12-3. 

HB 1153 prohibiting a political subdivision from adopting residency restrictions on sex offenders. This bill we wrote sailed through the House, but died in the Senate for the fourth time in six years. It would have struck town ordinances that keep registered sex offenders from living near schools, parks and daycare. Child and victim advocates, the Manchester Police and the State Police have long opposed these exile codes, which make many registrants jobless and then homeless. That result is a clear public safety problem. Opponents tried to table the bill in the House, but it prevailed 264 to 92.  We’ll sponsor the same bill in 2017 with a new legislature. If Democrats win control of the House and Senate we might have a chance. Then again, we might not. The good news is that only Holderness still has one of these banishment ordinances. It has driven out all but two registrants. Town voters like that outcome.

HB 1343 prohibiting the retroactive application of the sex offender registry.  This bill we wrote died in the House after an 11-5 vote against it in the Criminal Justice Committee. Few lawmakers understood or bothered to read a New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling last year that found the Internet shaming roster to be a retroactive punishment for sex offenders. Those are outlawed in the state constitution. The court ruled in John Doe v N.H. that an estimated 800 lifetime registrants should have a chance to leave the public list if they could pay a lawyer and experts for a court hearing to prove they are no longer dangerous. Our bill would have freed them from a law that unconstitutionally increased their punishment long after conviction.

We told lawmakers the bill would destroy the public registry, because it needs to be destroyed. In our view, that is what the 2015 John Doe decision called for. The Supreme Court called the registry a retroactive punishment. Those are unconstitutional. Repeal of the registry would be good policy because the registry endangers the public far more than it protects anyone. We are talking with defense lawyers in hopes of mustering a challenge to the new law. Those 800 registrants can still contest their public registration under the current law before the new one takes effect. But time is running out. 

HB 1216 requiring public bodies and agencies to provide information which is not regularly kept or reported, upon payment by the requestor. This bill we wrote died in the House because lawmakers thought it opened too wide a hole in the Right to Know Law. The legislation would have forced the Department of Corrections to give Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform data it sought on the huge backlog in the sex offender treatment program. Committee members agreed the problem the bill addressed was serious, but they disliked our solution of changing the Right to Know Law. The Department of Corrections gave no testimony at the bill’s hearing, which surprised us at first. 

HB 1532 permitting state or county prisoners to vote by absentee ballot. This bill we wrote died after heavy opposition from House lawmakers. It would have allowed New Hampshire prisoners, like those in Maine and Vermont, to vote by absentee ballot in the town election where they lived when they were arrested. We had a good turnout for this one, but officials weren’t ready to see prisoners as human beings with even a tiny say in policy making.

HB 1311 limiting solitary confinement. This bill we wrote would have limited and studied the use of punitive segregation and solitary confinement in prison. Every inmate knows somebody who left solitary far worse than they went in. This and two other bills to study solitary confinement all went nowhere. We had good turnouts for them, but the votes against them were 11-0, 11-0 and 9-2.  The Department of Corrections told lawmakers we are imagining a problem. We’ll try again next year. 

HB 1390 to let towns restrict where registered sex offenders can live. We helped to kill this bill, which would have evicted sex offenders from their homes if they lived too near places where kids gather. Worse, few registrants could have made parole. It would have been impossible for them to find allowable housing far enough from any of the forbidden places. The bill also let a victim speak at a registrant’s court hearing to get off the public shaming list. We testified against the bill, as did the Civil Liberties Union and defense lawyers. The House Local Government Committee voted against it 15-0.

SB 468 to make the sex offender registry a lifetime punishment. The bill would make it almost impossible for registered sex offenders to escape the Internet shaming list. They would have to pay lawyers and experts to prove they are no longer dangerous.  Few registrants have that kind of money. Many are unemployed and homeless because the Internet targeting roster ruins their families and careers. Several registrants spoke against the bill at both the House and Senate hearings, joining Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform, the Civil Liberties Union and the Defense Lawyers Association. The House passed a slightly better bill than the one the Senate approved, so the two sides must meet next month in a conference committee. They will find a version they both approve, probably the House bill. We at Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform hope to raise money to pay the expert witnesses for a lawsuit much broader than the recent John Doe case. And a pro bono defense lawyer needs to take on the case. Readers can help this project. It won’t happen without them.

HB 1318  to make it impossible for sex offenders to escape the public registry. We mustered a good turnout against this bill at the Criminal Justice Committee hearing on Mar. 17. Lobbyists from the  Attorney General’s Office and Department of Safety offered a long amendment hoping to save the bill. Ultimately, House members scrapped it in favor of SB 468.