Legislative News and Updates - May 24, 2017

Two of our 2017 bills were retained for in-depth study

Two of our eight bills in the current session still have a chance to become law. Six others have died. Those are actually pretty good results for a legislative session. Thanks to our House Bill 544, lawmakers will closely scrutinize the prison earned time program this fall to see if the state should give more prisoners a chance to reduce their sentences by up to 21 months. 

The bill is retained in legislative committee for work sessions and possible reintroduction next January. Corrections officials say the bill would make them hire five more social workers and five more teachers. We dispute that enormous cost. 

Two versions of much the same bill written by the Department of Corrections have already become law, giving prisoners up to 13 months off their minimums in 2015, then up to 21 months off in 2016. Both times the reported fiscal impact was zero. Now the reported fiscal impact is catastrophic. It makes no sense.

The argument for HB 544 is simply a matter of fairness.

The Legislature passed HB 649, the first earned time law, in 2014. It allowed inmates to earn up to 13 months off their sentences through hard work to make themselves better people.  Last year’s HB 1426 increased the winnable time off one’s sentence to 21 months. Neither of those bills, mostly written by the Department of Corrections, included any fiscal impact. None. The department carried out both changes at no added cost to taxpayers.  

This year’s change was written on behalf of inmates by Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform. Inmates told us that many prisoners still lack a way to earn time off their sentences. The bill makes some modest changes to let them do so. We doubt the new language should cost a lot of money, since the first two earned time laws had zero fiscal impact.  HB 544 leaves unchanged the maximum earned time a prisoner can win. That remains 21 months.  The bill just opens up more ways to earn it. If the department is right about the huge annual price tag for this bill, and they can prove it, then HB 544 is a questionable bill.

Kill the bill and you face a huge problem.

But lawmakers will have to address the underlying problem some other way. Half the inmates are jobless and do little but wait to get out. The gyms close at 2 p.m. weekdays. The gyms are locked all weekend. The cellblocks are overcrowded, and one of the gyms in Berlin is full of cots men are sleeping in. These and other grim conditions make it so hard to hire staff that officers are working two, three and four double shifts per week. That is the most expensive way to run a prison. And the most dangerous. Please understand where these trends are headed. According to the Concord Monitor, the overtime allows half a dozen guards to earn more money than Commissioner Wrenn does.  

We hope lawmakers still have some time to stop what looks like a tragedy coming on. HB 544 would be a small step in the right direction. Even if it costs more in the short run, which we dispute, it could save as much as $60,000 per inmate who leaves prison with 21 months off their original minimum sentence. Let the inmate population continue to rise, and you face building another prison. On the other hand, HB 544 can reduce the inmate population responsibly. It would release folks who do something to better themselves while they are away from home and loved ones.

We have to fight for a good sex offender treatment program. 

Our HB 192 to make the Department of Corrections get its administrative rules approved by lawmakers stands a fair chance of being reintroduced next January. This legislation has already forced prison officials to get their sex offender program rules approved this summer by the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules. Prisoners and their friends need to pack that hearing and testify. 

They will take place before a special board with half a dozen reps and half a dozen senators that meets monthly. The bill is also retained in a separate House committee, a good result. We’ll let people know about these hearings when they are scheduled and we do hope you will attend.

According to deputy commissioner Helen Hanks, the proposed text of their rules is already on line at their website. This fall lawmakers will review our HB 192 in committee. We sure hope they reintroduce it in 2018.

Some suggested testimony on proposed correctional rules

What should people tell the rules committee about these sex offender program rules? We want the Department of Corrections to start offering sex offender treatment at least four years before a prisoner’s minimum release date, not two years. From 2012 to 2015, no sex offenders made parole at their earliest release date because the required program started two years or less before their minimum release dates and took too long too complete.  Last year the state beefed up the staffing for the treatment program under the pressure of the audit we forced to happen. But 86 percent of sex offenders still missed their earliest parole dates. In the last four years fewer than 4 percent of sex offenders have made parole on time.

Another delay is caused by the clandestine Administrative Review Committee. That’s a board with six women that makes the real parole decisions for sex offenders. We would like the state to abolish that board. Inmates never get to appear before it or answer its questions. Nor does it issue any written ruling. The audit of the sex offender program said this secret board makes the real parole decisions. In the process it steals the authority of the Parole Board, which has the force of law behind it.

We think the Parole Board under Chairman Donna Sytek does much better work than her board did before she took over. We trust them to do a thorough job reviewing sex offenders without a duplicate board that usurps the authority of Sytek’s group. 

We’d also like to get rid of the unreliable lie detector test that only those convicted of sex offences must pass before being eligible for parole. Many inmates flunk the subjective test, one that sounds woefully unscientific to us. Test failure sets a prisoner back months until they can take it again. 

Finally, we question the value of the sex offender treatment program at all. We believe that legitimate evidence based treatment by qualified caring therapists can be very effective.  Helen Hanks told the House Finance Committee last fall she had no evidence this particular NH program offers any treatment value. She assumed it did, but she had no proof. 

Sex offender treatment is different than other therapies for adults. Sex offender treatment is a serious and encouraging process which focuses on learning specialized strategies for stopping abusive behavior, being accountable and taking responsibility for harm done.

There are treatment programs nationwide that do help people change their abusive behaviors and learn how to live safe and healthy lives. In fact, contrary to popular belief, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that sexual offender treatment reduces the risk for future abusive behavior. And when interventions are offered to adolescents and youth with sexual behavior problems, the likelihood of further abusive behavior can be dramatically reduced, or even eliminated.

Treatment for sexual behavior problems however is highly specialized which means that the professionals who do this work must have specific training in this area. Some mental health professionals know and understand these issues, but many do not have the specialized knowledge and background. 

CCJR has been very concerned that many of the therapists employed by the state prison do not have specialized training and are not licensed by or answerable to the NH Board of Mental Health Practices.   Another concern has been the use of shame based techniques which are counter productive to a therapeutic process.

Why retain the sex offender program at all?

Rep. Neil Kurk, chairman of the committee, insisted she come back with that evidence. She hasn’t done it yet. She should never get the new rules approved until she keeps that promise to Rep. Kurk. Why should inmates leave months or years late because they can’t get into a program that may be ineffective? Commissioner Bill Wrenn once told me he only uses treatment programs backed up by solid research.  Not this one.

This battle started three years ago, when Hanks told CCJR that only six sex offenders were in the backlog waiting for treatment. We fought for two years to get a formal audit of the program by the Office of Legislative Budget Assistant. Its findings were scathing. More than 200 prisoners were on track to miss their minimum parole dates last June because the program was so badly managed. 

Why do we care?

Sexual crimes are very serious and horrific crimes. “Society demands and deserves protection, and we all share the goal of sexual crimes. In fact, that is and should a primary directive.”[1]

According to Michael Hubbard, “. . . our society is also responsible for erecting many of the barriers that stand in the way of the recovery that sex offender therapists and our clients strive to achieve. “

We at CCJR want to ensure that anyone convicted of a sexual offense receives effective treatment so that when the leave the prison (as most will do) that they renter society with the tools they need to live an offense free life.

“Understandably, victim advocacy is far more palatable than the thought of treating a population that most would prefer to exile. However, the sad fact is that punitive barriers such as limited jobs, housing restrictions and sex offender registration raise significant risk factors for recidivism. These barriers often negate the efforts of sex offender therapists and those clients who possess legitimate desires to recover and return as productive members of society. In fact, our society may be contributing to future victimization — just the opposite of our primary goal.”[2]

Hubbard goes on to say, “As we all know, hopelessness is like a vampire to therapy. As our restrictive policies and biases feed that hopelessness, treatment and recovery are undermined, and relapse can become more likely. The short of it is that society’s efforts are based on a significant amount of misinformation and myths about sex offenders, and politicians and law enforcement officials often respond to the public’s demand for protection with tougher and more restrictive laws.”, that do little to keep our society safer and may actually cause harm.

Our other six bills all died.

HB 526 would have required that prison rehabilitation programs best serve inmates and give them a chance to reduce their sentences. Helen Hanks, the deputy commissioner of Corrections, told lawmakers the law already does what we’re asking for. Something odd happened after the public hearing. I left with the clear impression Hanks supported a bill amendment she suggested, and not killing the bill. 

HB 306 to require a judge to state the estimated financial cost of a sentence in the pre-sentence report. Our nonprofit organization wrote this bill to cause judges to think about something important every time they write a sentence. Each year a man or women is imprisoned costs taxpayers about $35,000 for that inmate. Worse, the officers we ask to keep the cellblocks safe are working two, three or even four double shifts per week. 

HB 285 to limit consecutive sentencing to two times the longest sentence possible for the highest grade offense charged.  Lawmakers apparently like the draconian sentences we have now. Over time they are creating ever more dangerously crowded cellblocks. Prosecutors like the current law. They can charge a defendant with multiple consecutive sentences as part of a plea bargaining process. Public defenders see little choice but to ask their clients to agree to terms. The defense lawyers could never defend everyone on their caseload at an actual trial. 

HB 282 to let the Department of Corrections allows work release for prisoners and places them in a halfway house, both without a judge’s approval. Lawmakers saw no need speed up the process of releasing inmates and let them serve more time outside the walls. 

HB 283 to define bodily injury in an assault as harm that causes permanent or protracted loss of health or function. The bill was amended at first into the current federal law, which is much worse than current state law. Having no bill would have been a far better result. We’re glad to report the bill simply died soon afterward.

HB 284 to make the jury charge more neutral for people accused of sex offenses. Victim advocates said they like the current law, which lets a judge at trial tell jurors that the accuser is already a victim. Our bill referred to him or her as simply he accuser, not the victim. One woman on the House Criminal Justice Committee said she would want the court to call her a victim if she were a victim. It never occurred to her that designation would be unfair and premature at trial before the jury makes a decision.

Feds seek crackdown on drug users

On May 12 Sessions ordered federal drug prosecutors to seek the toughest possible sentences. If they think lesser penalties might be proper, they will need special permission from a U.S. Attorney, an Assistant Attorney General or their designee.  

“Each United States Attorney or Assistant Attorney General is responsible for ensuring that this policy is followed,” Sessions wrote in a press release, “and that any deviations from the core principle are justified by unusual facts.”

If that sounds bland, it isn’t. It represents a huge shift from the Obama era. Former attorney general Eric Holder has called the new policy “dumb on crime.”

 “It is an ideologically motivated, cookie-cutter approach,” Holder warned in a press release, “that has only been proven to generate unfairly long sentences that are often applied indiscriminately and do little to achieve long-term public safety.”

By Chris Dornin, co-founder, CCJR, 603-228-9610, cldornin@aol.com


(Michael Hubbard is a mental health specialist with the sex offender treatment program at Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Ore.  Read the entire article by Michael Hubbard:   https://ct.counseling.org/2014/03/sex-offender-therapy-a-battle-on-multiple-fronts/)

[1] Hubbard, Michael,  Sex offender therapy: A battle on multiple fronts, Counseling Today 2014

[2] Hubbard, Michael,  Sex offender therapy: A battle on multiple fronts, Counseling Today 2014