An open letter to NH House Criminal Justice

Corrections Commissioner Bill Wrenn recently told you that you could greatly improve the retained earned time legislation with three changes.   They are all good ideas, and they might be politically possible. Have the courage to repeal the truth in sentencing law to avoid a conflict in minimum sentences that Corrections would face for prisoners who had earned a sentence reduction. Widen the eligibility for earned time to give all prisoners a chance at it as a matter of basic fairness. Find extra funding to hire any new staff the bill would call for. You could amend Rep. Mary Stuart Gile’s HB 649 to do all three and reintroduce it in January. 
How to repeal truth in sentencing
What if you folks used the coming buzz over this legislation to help educate the public to the nearly $400 million unintended fiscal impact of the truth in sentencing law of 1982? Many of you have heard from the Inmate Communications Committee that day rooms are full of cots, and programs have been gutted for lack of staffing. The system has arguably reached a critical stage. Many officers are working two and three double shifts a week. You can build more cells in a hurry and hire more staff, or you can do something better and cheaper. 
As you know, two new inmate class action lawsuits to address the dangerous warehousing are already in the works. (By the way, if you go the construction route, you might want to build a string of halfway houses around the state rather than add capacity at North State Street in Concord.)
HB 277 three decades ago increased every sentence by two thirds going forward. Good prisoners had been serving 215 days per year of their sentences. People sentenced after 1982 began to serve a budget-breaking 365 days per year.  Voters are capable of learning that a more restorative corrections philosophy would be cheaper and safer. Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich have been saying that for years. 
You could do worse than apply the county corrections early release policy to state prisoners. You could give state officials much the same authority jail superintendents now have, even under truth in sentencing, to adjust the minimum sentence as inmates earn time off in a variety of ways that might cost the state very little. 
A volunteer might teach an inmate to read. Somebody in AA might attain all 12 steps. A wood worker in hobbycraft might win an award from the NH Arts Council or the League of NH Craftsmen. Every inmate now has an individual plan of rehabilitation. Folks who do the work to meet their well-chosen personal goals would earn corresponding sentence reductions. 
Individualizing earned time and changing the minimum sentences this way would be no guarantee of release. That decision would still be up to the Parole Board. The prisoner would just go before the Parole Board a little sooner. Below is the county release law to use as a guide.
Sentence to County Correctional Facility
Section 651:18
    651:18 Place; Reduction in Sentence. – 
       II. Any prisoner whose conduct while in the custody of the superintendent of a county correctional facility has been meritorious may be issued a permit and discharged by the superintendent of the county department of corrections when he has served 2/3 of his minimum sentence, provided it shall appear to the superintendent to be a reasonable probability that he will remain at liberty without violating the law and will conduct himself as a good citizen.
Source. 1971, 518:1. 1973, 370:32. 1988, 89:31. 1991, 316:1. 2003, 237:14, eff. July 7, 2003.
How to widen eligibility for earned time
Tie the sentence reduction to the inmate’s individual plan of rehabilitation, and let the Department of Corrections adopt rules to implement a good system of rewards based on the best practices in the industry, which may be changing too rapidly to codify into law. 
How to pay for the law in the long term
Rep. Steve Vaillancourt is quite right that the bill pays for itself over time by gradually reducing the prison census to permit the closing of entire pods. The marginal cost saving for one released inmate is only a few thousand dollars per year because staffing and fixed costs remain. But shutting down of whole units would yield large personnel savings. That approach would eventually free up resources to reassign groups of officers, eliminate the overtime money hemorrhage, add teachers, counselors and shop managers and beef up community corrections and parole.
How to pay for the bill short term?
  1. Get creative. A number of inmates are qualified to teach high school and college courses. I’m a former high school English teacher myself. Retired folks like me on the outside might become volunteer teachers, mentors and tutors. 
  2. Grant release time to inmates who have already earned it. You would not be freeing a wave of potential Willie Hortons into the community.  These are folks who have bettered themselves despite withering peer pressure, despite the availability of drugs and alcohol, despite the violent culture inside, despite the stigma, boredom and warehousing. The Parole Board chaired by a champion of truth in sentencing would still scrutinize each new candidate for parole. Some would have to stay inside for a while longer.  
  3. Make what’s left of the landmark Justice Reinvestment philosophy of 2010 succeed. The biggest obstacle is gone. The Parole Board subscribes to that enlightened approach, unlike three years ago. It may even be leading an improbable and science-based reform of parole decisions with the help of consultants provided by the National Association of the States and the Pew Charitable Trusts.