You need to fight to make Corrections get its rules vetted

A House committee voted this week to retain and study HB 192, our bill to force the Department of Corrections to get all of its administrative rules approved by lawmakers. That’s a very good result. Helen Hanks, the assistant commissioner of Corrections, is now drafting rules for the sex offender treatment program to bring them before the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules. We at Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform made that happen. Now the real work begins.

Parolees and the loved ones of prisoners need to testify on those proposed rules. We’ll post the draft rules on line as soon as they come out, and we’ll let you know when the rules hearing is scheduled. Whatever happens to the rules, the House Executive Departments Committee will then decide whether to kill HB 192 this fall or reintroduce it in the 2018 legislative session. You should watch that committee debate too. 

We very much need for HB 192 to become law next year. Today the Department of Corrections makes up most of its rules, even the important ones, without legislative oversight. They’re bringing the proposed sex offender treatment rule before lawmakers only because Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform made it happen.

Audit report shows why lawmakers should vet prison rules

Our two-year fight to force a program audit of the sex offender treatment program was worth the massive effort it took. Here is a website link to the 40-page audit report on line.   

It is a scathing indictment of a program that has run badly ever since its scathing performance review in 2012. In those four years, very few sex offenders have left prison at their minimum sentences. They couldn’t start their required treatment program in time. Worse, the Administrative Review Committee inside the Concord men’s prison was functioning as the virtual Parole Board for sex offenders.  It was doing an incompetent job of that.

Read this next statement twice. According to the report, the Parole Board never receives “...the sex offender’s assessment scores, treatment progress, level of participation in treatment, and whether they showed signs of accepting responsibility for their crimes.” That is amazing. Note what a terrible example it sets for inmates.

Similarly, the Parole Board gets little information on 40 prisoners a year the Administrative Review Committee okays to leave prison without receiving any sex offender treatment. That’s a new category of prisoner created after the audit review started. There was a backlog of sex offenders to get rid of in a hurry. 

Please show up for the rule hearings

Former prisoners and prison family members need to tell lawmakers why the prisons should get all of their rules approved by lawmakers, except the rules that are appropriately secret. Nobody in the general public, for example, should know the exact procedures for a SWAT team in a cellblock riot. The rioters might misuse that information.

But the ordinary rules for treating sex offenders, and almost every other prison rule, should go before lawmakers for final vetting and sign off. That’s what HB 192 would make happen. It’s a rigorous, even painful process, for the folks in the state agency. I know because I wrote administrative rules for the Medicaid Program a few years ago. The Department of Corrections, which wields enormous power over voiceless people locked in cells, should get its administrative rules approved the same way every other state agency does with far less reason for the vetting. 

Committee tentatively okays our bill 

The House Criminal Justice Committee hashed out a saving amendment to one of our key bills, HB 526. The bill is very brief. It simply requires the Department of Corrections to serve inmates and parolees and help them reduce their sentences. I don’t have the exact wording of the amendment, but we should thank assistant corrections commissioner Helen Hanks for suggesting it and agreeing to it. The final committee vote is set for next week, after a subcommittee meeting on the bill Feb. 14. We expect the full House and Senate to approve the eventual bill. But you can never be sure of that. A crowd of supporters at the Senate hearing in April would be nice. Parolees and their loved ones need to show up when their rights are at stake.

Committee kills two of our bills

The House Criminal Justice Committee voted overwhelmingly to kill two of our bills this week. Current law allows a judge to tell jurors in a sexual assault case that the “victim’s” testimony needs no corroboration. HB 284 would have called the alleged victim simply “the complainant,” a strictly neutral term. We testified that current law lets the judge call the accuser the victim. We think that’s a matter for the jury to decide, if we are to remain a democracy for very long. Lawmakers disagreed by a vote of 19-1. Several women reps said they would want their judge to say they were a victim if they had been raped. That’s the whole reason for the bill, but they didn’t get it. Not this year anyway.

The same committee shot down our HB 285 by a vote of 20-0. That’s too bad, but not surprising. The bill would have stopped prosecutors from charging defendants with numerous counts, sometimes 10 or 20 to run consecutively, for what is essentially a single crime. That practice gives prosecutors enormous power in the plea bargaining process. It pressures badly funded defense lawyers and public defenders to tell their clients to plead yes. We believe innocent people are pleading guilty. The bill would have limited the number of consecutive sentences to double the punishment for the worst charge. That’s the way the law was written 30 years ago. It yields a pretty stern punishment. But this is not the year for lawmakers to ease the pressure on overcrowded cellblocks.  

HB 285 also combined a prisoner’s multiple minimum and maximum sentences into a single minimum and a single maximum. We knew that part of the bill would hurt many prisoners. This section would send a prisoner before the Parole Board once instead of two or three or more times. We saw both parts of HB 285 as balancing each other. 

Today a person with three consecutive sentences of 3.5 to seven years can get out of prison and off parole after 14 years. The bill would make that sentence a full 10.5 to 21 years, which includes an extra seven years on parole. The workload of the Parole Board would drop by maybe half to two thirds. Those officials could do their hectic job better, maybe even well. Today there is nothing in statute or in the dictionary to support the way the Parole Board paroles people back inside the walls to serve another consecutive term. The Parole Board invented the current policy on multiple consecutive sentences, and lawmakers refuse to correct the error. It is an unconstitutional error.

Chris Dornin can be reached at 603-228-9610 or

By Chris Dornin, co-founder, Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform, Feb. 12, 2017