Six key crime bills survive in committee

The House Criminal Justice Committee last week approved a bill to give exonerated inmates $20,000 per year for wrongful incarceration and a bill to block municipalities from imposing residency restrictions against people on the sex offender public registry. The state has half a dozen of these local codes that ban registrants from living near schools, parks and day care centers. 

HB 247, the wrongful imprisonment bill, passed by a 10-9 vote after a long and emotional  debate. Most committee members agreed the current $20,000 compensation cap is far too low. Opponents said the state lacks the money to make good on claims. 

HB 442, the ban on ordinances against sex offenders, passed because lawmakers saw these codes as deeply flawed. Courts have struck down sex offender housing restrictions in both Dover and Franklin as breaches of a fundamental property right. 

Half the offenders fled both towns or simply stopped registering in the first year. That’s according to Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield and the finding of facts in the Dover District Court order.

Rep. Phil Ginsburg, D-Durham, said residency restrictions are unconstitutional and ineffective.  Rep. Kyle Tasker, R-Nottinghan, said they create unfavorable conditions for rehabilitation. 

“We heard strong testimony against driving sex offenders underground,” said Rep. Brenda Grady, D-Merrimack. 

The Criminal Justice Committee retained four bills important to friends of restorative justice and will study them over the summer. All could die in committee or survive and reach the House floor next January. 

HB 645 would liberalize a law that gives an offender an extra seven to 14 years for a new conviction if they have already served two consecutive felony sentences in prison. The bill would impose the extra penalty only after two separate incarcerations for any length of time with a period of freedom in between. Essentially, the legislation would turn a two-strikes law back into the three-strikes law that existed in 2003. 

The attorney general introduced HB 277 that year to comply with a US Supreme Court decision in Aprendi v New Jersey. According to the Senate Judiciary Committee verbatim transcript, neither lawmakers nor the AG’s Office understood that changing the word “incarcerations” to “convictions” might lengthen a great many future sentences by seven to 14 years. 

HB 480 would study and set statutory limits on the use of solitary confinement, also known as punitive segregation. 

HB 404 would give inmates credit off their minimum and maximum sentences for   earning diplomas, GEDs, degrees and certificates of self-improvement in any of several prison treatment programs. Former House Speaker Donna Sytek opposed the bill as a violation of the tradition of truth in sentencing. The Department of Corrections warned the bill would leave the state open to lawsuits from inmates ineligible for credits through no fault of their own.  

Supporters included Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform, the Civil Liberties Union, the Sentencing Project and Grassroots Leadership. They asked lawmakers to retain a worthy bill to address those concerns. 

HB 649 would award similar earned time credits, but only to prisoners between ages 17 and 25 as a pilot project. The program might expand later if it works well, said the bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Mary Stuart Gile, D-Concord.