Lawmakers weigh prison safety against cost concerns

CCJR Supports SB 500

New Hampshire Union Leader

The New Hampshire State Prison in Concord opened in 1878. Lowering the prison population through parole reform would lower costs to the state but problems emerged after legislation passed two years ago allowed a handful of violent sex offenders to be among the first prisoners to be released to parole.Photos by Thomas Roy/Union Leader

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It was a bipartisan who's who of New Hampshire leaders that two years ago crafted and promoted parole reform in Senate Bill 500, the Justice Reinvestment Act.

Aimed at safely reducing the state prison population to save money by releasing inmates early to community-based treatment programs, it quickly caused political wrangling after a handful of violent sex offenders were among the first to be released to parole.

Community-based programs were slow to start up and were unfunded at first. Senate Bill 52 was ultimately passed, which took the teeth out of SB 500 and restored most parole decisions to the discretion of the Adult Parole Board.

Now, as the state prison population is creeping upward again because of SB 52, one lawmaker wants to explore restoring portions of SB 500, but others say good riddance to bad legislation.

And Republican House Speaker William O'Brien said the focus of corrections reform now should be on privatizing the state prison.

“The speaker fully supports this effort and will continue these plans in the next budget,” said O'Brien's spokesman, Shannon Bettencourt.

O'Brien and the Legislature knew passing SB 52 would mean the prison population would increase, she said in an email.

But it would also curtail “releasing violent and sexual predators early,” Bettencourt wrote.

“This was done to ensure the safety of New Hampshire's citizens, which must be the primary goal,” Bettencourt said.

Rep. Stephen Shurtleff, D-Penacook, who opposes prison privatization, is considering introducing legislation to restore some facets of SB 500.

"I think SB 500 was on the right track. Everyone agreed corrections needed to be made and were made by SB 52, but a couple areas went a little too far,” Shurtleff said.

SB 500 originally required that all inmates be released on parole supervision nine months before their maximum date; that non-violent offenders be released after serving 120 percent of their minimum sentences; and that parole violators be returned to prison for a maximum of 90 days.

"Nobody should max out and go out the door," Shurtleff said. “It is better they go out on supervised release.”

He hasn't yet worked out details for new legislation, Shurtleff said, adding the state should also explore alternative sentencing to reduce the prison population.

Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, said while it won't be easy in the current economic climate, he would like to

make sure there is money to continue community-based parole programs.

“It's pretty hard when money is tight,” said Welch, who serves on the statewide advisory board for the Department of Corrections.

Rockingham County Attorney Jim Reams, an early opponent of SB 500 who also opposes privatizing prisons, said studies show some prison programs work, but they cost money.

“Michigan is the only state that has successfully reduced the prison population without a corresponding explosion in crime,” Reams said. “They did it by investing money in probation and parole and took the longer view.”

New Hampshire has the lowest incarceration rate in the nation, Reams said, but it may not be possible to reduce the rate further because the people in prison now really should stay there.

“They always talk about non-violent, first-time offenders. That's not who's in prison. I say find someone who fits that definition, and I'll help them get out,” Reams said.

There is no magic bullet, Reams said.

“You have to have the programming money upfront to impact the recidivism rate. That's clear,” Reams said.

Marshall Clement of the Council of State Government's Justice Center worked on the project that led to SB 500 with lawmakers on both sides of aisle and Gov. John Lynch, Attorney General Michael Delaney and then-Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick.

“New Hampshire is trending in the right direction,” Clement said of the state's latest 43.6 percent recidivism rate, the lowest in five years. A study by the Pew Center on the States showed the national recidivism rate averaged 43.7 percent; Massachusetts' rate was 42.2 percent; and Connecticut's was 43.7 percent. There was no data available for Maine.

States such as Michigan and Kansas have reduced recidivism between 30 percent and 50 percent, Clement said. They focused on the people who were most likely to reoffend, trained staff to reduce the risk, and provided cognitive behavior therapy designed to change criminal thinking, Clement said.

Edward J. Latessa, Ph.D., a professor and director of the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati, said most inmates will return to their communities.

“Do you want them coming out better than they went in?” Latessa said.

Politics will always be involved in something as visceral as crime, he said. “I think a lot of them talk about public safety, but when it comes to doing the right thing, they don't always do it,” Latessa said.

Reducing the recidivism rate will save money and reduce the number of victims, he said.

“It's about public safety,” Latessa said. “If New Hampshire's recidivism rate is at 43 percent and you reduce it to 35 percent, that's a lot of victims, a lot families, a lot of money saved.”