Two hugely important crime bills go before the House Criminal Justice Committee next Thursday afternoon, Feb. 7.

By Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR, 603-620-7946

HB 443:  would keep for-profit corrections companies from operating jails and prisons in New Hampshire. It has a hearing at 1:30 p.m. in Room 204. 

HB 404:  would let prisoners earn time off their minimum and maximum sentences through participating in rehabilitative programming such as vocational, mental health, substance abuse and other educational programs. Its hearing starts at 2:30 p.m. in the same room.

Both bill have numerous sponsors and emerged from an 18-month public education campaign by a coalition of organizations that seek restorative justice. They include, among other groups, the Prison Concerns Committee of the Episcopal Church, the American Friends Service Committee, the Civil Liberties Union, The State Employees Association, The Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, the League of Women Voters, Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform and Families Now Involved. 

Bill to study public registry clears House

The House passed a bill Jan. 30 to study ways to improve the sex offender public registry. As mandated by the federal Adam Walsh Law, New Hampshire posts on the State Police website the names, criminal records, photos and addresses of most of the people who have committed sex offenses. 

Victim advocates and police spoke in favor of the bill, HB 165, at a public hearing last week, as did advocates for criminal justice reform. It left the Criminal Justice Committee with a 17-0 vote for passage. 

The legislation next goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Sharon Carson, who sponsored a similar bill last year to study sex offender policies in general. Her bill sailed through the Senate and died in the House because the subject was too broad, and the needed commission would have been too unwieldy. HB 165 arguably solves both problems.

Crime bill hearings Feb. 7 in 204 LOB                                                      

10 a.m.  HB 447 would automatically annul the records of many nonsexual crimes if the person keeps a clean record for a number of years after finishing their sentence. That waiting period would vary from one to five years depending on the crime. 

10:30 a.m. HB 450 would seal annulled criminal records from public view and from police databases. 

11 a.m.  HB 618 would remove an annulled conviction record as a public document.

1 p.m. HB 442 would bar towns and cities from imposing residency restrictions on sex offenders. The legislation came out of a private forum of stakeholders on sex offender issues in December, including police and prosecutors.

1:30 p.m. HB 443 would ban private prisons as discussed above.

2:00 p.m. HB 480 would impose strict controls on the use of solitary confinement, also known as segregation, in jails and prisons. 

2:30 p.m. HB 404 would let inmates earn sentence reductions as discussed above.


1/25 State House report and hearings schedule
By Chris Dornin, founder, CCJR, cell phone 620-7946

Bill would study Internet shaming roster

Legislation to pinpoint and address weaknesses in the sex offender public registry cleared its first major hurdle this week. HB 165 sponsored by Rep. Tim Robertson won 17-0 support in the House Criminal Justice Committee Jan. 23 and appears on the consent calendar for a floor vote Jan. 30.  

Experts on all sides of this emotional issues agree the Internet roster is flawed and some changes might protect public safety better.  The need for a bill like this, in fact,  emerged during a private meeting last month of stakeholders on sex offender policy, including prosecutors, defense lawyers, a senior law enforcement official, a therapist and advocates for registrants.  Jill Rockey of Central NH Crisis Services, Amanda Grady Sexton of the Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and Cheryl Nedeau of the State Police spoke for HB 165 at the public hearing last week. 

Rep. Renny Cushing, the committee vice chairman, noted this strong support from victim advocates as well as defense attorneys.

“This is a good opportunity to look at the problems with the registry and recommend legislative action next year,” he said.

New Hampshire has yet to comply with one of the key standards of the federal Adam Walsh Act, which calls for posting on the Internet the names, faces, home addresses and schools of teen offenders. The state stands to lose 10 percent of its federal Byrne Act funding, a possible penalty in the $50,000 range based on previous federal grants.

“We don’t intend to follow Adam Walsh,” said Rep. Gene Charron, the retired superintendent of Rockingham County House of Corrections. “It was well intentioned, but now we need to get all the players together.”

Rep. Kyle Tasker called the registry a hit list.

“There’s a lot of vigilante justice out there,” he said. “They have to look over their shoulder. Maybe we want that and maybe we don’t.”

HB 247: Bill would award $20,000 a year for wrongful imprisonment

The House Criminal Justice Committee will take testimony Jan. 29 on a bill to increase the compensation for wrongful incarceration. Today that award is capped at $20,000 no matter how long an innocent person has languished behind the walls.  HB 247 would increase that amount to as much as $20,000 per year.   

Bill would impose mandatory minimum sentence for burglary. 

Mandatory minimums like the one proposed require harsh sentences for nonviolent offenders. Such laws do a disservice to the people accused of the crimes, to the judges before whom their cases are reviewed, to communities that are largely poor and black or Latino, and to society. By almost any measure, prosecutors wield too much power. Because many laws govern similar behavior and are written broadly, prosecutors commonly have multiple charges from which to choose. This means they typically have many sentencing ranges to choose from as well. 

Thus, they can – and often do – threaten defendants who want to exercise their trial rights with charges that will carry longer sentences (sometimes decades longer) than the charges if defendants plead guilty. On average, defendants who refuse to waive their right to a jury trial receive a sentence much longer than those who plead. And with mandatory minimum laws, a prosecutor’s charging decision often dictates a sentence that a judge is powerless to avoid. 

So, Far from eliminating disparity by curbing judicial discretion, mandatory minimums simply shift power to prosecutors. To rein in this power, the legislature should no longer pass laws with mandatory minimum sentences. These laws have inappropriately shifted sentencing authority to prosecutors through their charging decisions, impeding judges from considering mitigating factors that would help impose fair and just sentences. They essentially strip away the discretion that judges traditionally employ in sentencing low-level offenders.

HB 264: Bill reduces penalty nonsexual contact.  Changes simple assault of unprivileged contact without injury to a violation, except sexual contact.  The legislature is ultimately responsible for setting the penalties for crimes. Any meaningful reduction in prison overcrowding must start with rational decisions to reduce penalties where appropriate. This will require courage on the part of legislators because of the public misconception that reducing penalties is being "soft on crime."