Legislative update for March 15, 2013

The House is rushing to meet a Mar. 28 deadline to act on all bills and send the survivors along to the Senate. A dozen crime bills go to floor votes this week, the last of 80 bills on tap at the start of the term. Most have died or gotten retained for study. The Criminal Justice Committee can either kill them this fall or bring them back next January. Here are some key bills on the calendar for marathon House sessions Wednesday and Thursday.

Showdown vote coming on for-profit prisons

HB 443 left committee with 13-5 support to bar New Hampshire from letting a for-profit corrections company build and run any state prisons. The legislation is silent about hiring a vendor to construct a prison and lease it to the state to manage.

The Criminal Justice Committee chairman, Laura Pantelakos (D-Portsmouth), pushed hard for the ban in committee and wrote the blurb all 400 members will read before an expected showdown floor fight along party lines.

“Prison privatization is not good for the state because our constitution says that we are supposed to rehabilitate,” she wrote for the House calendar. “The committee recognizes that prisoners are not the only ones affected by privatization and that family members also feel the effects. Many reports regarding privatization of prisons show the negative aspects of privatization. The amendment allows the commissioner the flexibility to move inmates in a case of emergency.” 

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt (R-Manchester) strongly criticized the bill as premature until the state properly evaluates the offers that came in last summer from four bidders. He said there’s a chance the state could save money using a private company and spend it on other needs. 

“That’s why the minority is bewildered at the rush to pass this bill,” Vaillancourt wrote. “What this bill does is allow people to stand on a soap box and sound off before all the results are in. The bill is virtually meaningless because one legislature cannot bind a future legislature with a bill; only a constitutional amendment can be so binding.” 

Two dozen state and national organizations sent a letter to all House members last week urging them to protect prisoners, the public and taxpayers from the down side of privatization as widely seen elsewhere. Meanwhile, members of the local Prison Watch coalition against privatization are meeting next week with Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan to argue against immediate privatization as authorized by the previous legislature. She could still accept one of the bids, hammer out a contract and ask the Executive Council to approve it. That is unlikely, though. She opposed the idea in the election campaign. 

Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn told lawmakers HB 443 would tie his hands in an emergency that closed all or part of a prison. He urged lawmakers to leave future options open as well in case prison population swells the way it has in a war on crime that favors incarceration. In response, the committee amended the bill to permit short-term privatization with strict limits. The wording below replaces most of the original bill. 

Amendment to HB 443-FN (2013-0563h) Proposed by the Majority of the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety - R

Amend RSA 21-H:8, VII as inserted by section 2 of the bill to read as follows:

VII.  (a) The commissioner may order the assignment and transfer of persons committed to his or her custody to correctional facilities of the department or correctional facilities operated by state governments in other jurisdictions, or public facilities under contract with the department. The commissioner shall not enter into a contract with a private or for-profit entity for the custody of state or county inmates. 

(b) Notwithstanding subparagraph (a), if the governor, upon recommendation of the commissioner, declares by executive order that a corrections emergency exists that requires the commissioner to enter into a temporary contract with a private or for-profit entity to secure pro- visional housing for displaced inmates, the commissioner may enter into such a contract, pending approval of the governor and the council. Any such contract shall be for no more than 3 months and may be extended, with executive council approval, for no more than 3 months at a time and for no more than 21 months after the governor first determines that the prison emergency exists. Temporary contracts entered into under this section shall not permanently or indefinitely replace New Hampshire department of corrections correctional facilities or contracts with other publicly- operated facilities.

AMENDED ANALYSIS This bill prohibits the department of corrections from transferring custody of prisoners to a correctional facility operated by a private or for-profit entity, except when the governor, upon recommendation of the commissioner of the department of corrections, declares by executive order that a corrections emergency exists.

Proposed women’s prison gets hearing Mar. 19

The Corrections Department will tell the House Capital Budget Committee Tuesday about plans for a new women’s prison. The briefing is in Room 201 of the legislative office building at 3 p.m. NH Legal Assistance filed suit last year over poor conditions at the crowded Goffstown prison for women.

Corrections officials are on record agreeing with a scathing report about the facility two years ago. The department has leased a former county jail from Hillsborough County for 20 years as temporary housing for female offenders. Members of the House Criminal Justice Committee will tour the place this month to see the problem first-hand. The Prison Watch coalition against private prisons has made building a new women’s prison a top priority.

Jails could put more inmates on home or work release

HB 442 would give jail superintendents more authority to place non-violent inmates on home confinement or let them leave during the day to go to a job, class or volunteer commitment. Some counties have long done so, but the bill clarifies their power to let prisoners improve themselves outside the walls and stay with their families. Supporters said the bill would help the cash-strapped counties control their jail budgets. Rep. Vaillancourt sponsored an amendment requiring jailers to give judges and prosecutors a ten-day notice to object before an inmate goes out. Otherwise, a jail superintendent might usurp the sentencing authority of the court. 

Probation officers could mete out wider range of sanctions

HB 644, endorsed by Parole Board chairman Donna Sytek, would give probation officers the same wide statutory powers as parole officers to discipline offenders surely and quickly without sending them back for a long stay behind bars. Parole officers won that discretion from a landmark law in 2010, SB 500. This bill would give probation officers the same scope to work with their clients. An alcoholic who misses AA meetings might spend a weekend or two or three or four in jail before looking at some serious time behind the walls. The philosophy is to rehabilitate offenders and save money on the costs of incarceration. 

The bill removes language from current law requiring the Parole Board to release nonviolent prisoners no later than 120 percent of their minimum sentence unless the board feels like keeping them. Supporters of restorative justice may ask the Senate to keep the language in current law that suggests the state ought to release these inmates as a preferred practice. Existing law also gives such inmates one parole hearing at their minimum sentence and then another one at 120 percent of minimum. Sytek said the second hearing is unneeded and makes extra work for a small part-time board.

Supporters try to earmark funds for cold case unit

A bill to dedicate special funding for the cold case murder investigation unit in the AG’s Office left committee with a vote of 14-6 to kill it. Opponents of HB 661 said every item in the state budget should compete on a level playing field with every other need. Money spent on old unsolved murders might find better use breaking open new cases with hot leads and still-living witnesses. A minority amendment would give the controversial unit 35 percent of the proceeds from propertty seizures in drug cases. 

The AG was instrumental in getting the state to adopt most of the guidelines in the federal Adam Walsh Act mandating a sex offender public registry. Prosecutors warned we might have lost 10 percent of the annual Byrne law enforcement grant for noncompliance. CCJR has since learned part of that money was going to the cold case unit. States across the country have dragged their feet meeting the federal standards, which are very expensive and list teen perpetrators along with adults. 

Bill would allow prescribed pot

A bill to legalize medical marijuana left the Health and Human Services Committee with 14-1 support. Advocates of wider drug decriminalization have pushed similar bills for more than a decade, and this could finally be the year. HB 573 includes some strict standards to keep recreation pot smokers from abusing the new right. Recipients would have to be really ill, and the pot would have to help them deal with pain, nausea or other debilitating symptoms. A blue ribbon council would evaluate the law to see that it works only as intended.