Status of Key Crime bills as of March 19, 2012

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

Senate okays bill to study sex offender issues calmly span

The Senate passed SB 277 to set up a sex offender management board of 19 experts and stakeholders that would vet sex offender policies, study the science on this emotional issue, find out what other states are doing, learn by their mistakes, and make an annual report for lawmakers. The membership would include prosecutors, victim advocates, researchers, defense lawyers, the ACLU, the Public Defender and an advocate for sex offenders. The House Criminal Justice Committee will hear testimony on the bill Tuesday, April 3, at 10:00 a.m. in Room 204 of the Legislative Office Building.

Finance gives privatization study more time

A House Finance subcommittee voted this month to allow the commission studying prison privatization until Dec. 1 to issue its final report. Its preliminary report last December advised shipping 1,200 inmates out of state or contracting with private vendors to incarcerate them. If the full House approves the time extension bill, SB 376, as expected, the Senate would have to vote to accept the change in dates from May 1 in the Senate version. That concurrence is a foregone conclusion. 

The executive branch already has a legislative mandate to privatize  corrections as part of the budget bill approved last year, but Corrections officials have opposed sending inmates out of state. Opponents of privatization at hearings this year and last have included CCJR, many members of the Families of Inmates Support group, members of the League of Women Voters, the American Friends Service Committee, NH Legal Assistance, the ACLU, and both prison unions. It is still possible for Gov. John Lynch to push through a privatization plan in his lame duck year, and he has sent conflicting messages on the issue. The best outcome would be no action until next year, when a new legislature could take up or reject the issue.

Earned time bill dies

The House killed HB 1654 to give inmates 90 days off their minimum sentence for earning a GED and 120 days off for getting a high school diploma. Going on to earn an associates degree would have reduced the minimum by 180 days. So would getting a bachelors, a masters and a doctorate. As first submitted the bill awarded time off for undergoing and completing mental health and treatment programs. CCJR worked to get the House Criminal Justice Committee to support the bill 14-1, but House majority leader D.J. Bettencourt led a floor fight against it. He warned that it violated the tradition of truth in sentencing and discriminated in favor of inmates who could pay for their own college courses.  The Department of Corrections opposed the bill too as a major stress on an inadequate budget to begin with.

Bill to limit consecutive sentencing dies.

The House this month killed HB 1568 to allow at most two back to back sentences for the same continuous crime. Today few defendants risk going to jury trials because prosecutors routinely pile on charges to encourage plea bargaining. CCJR testified this is a widespread abuse of power by elected prosecutors seeking re-election instead of defending justice. 

County attorneys and the Attorney General’s Office opposed the bill and said this practice  is pretty rare. The bill left committee with a 14-0 vote against it, and stood no chance on the House floor. The bill also gave the Parole Board a law to justify parole when there are multiple sentences. Today parole is defined as release to the street, but an inmate with three consecutive sentences gets released twice to the same cell where they woke on the morning of the hearing.  Only the last hearing can result in release to the community. 

There is no law to sanction doing serial parole the way the board handles it now. The board made up its practice without asking permission of the legislature or its joint rule-making committee. A superior court decision upheld the executive branch “law” as a one of several ways to interpret a criminal code the presiding judge described as incoherent regarding consecutive sentences and parole. The bill would have economized on scarce government and defense resources by greatly reducing the number of parole hearings in a year. It would have shortened the average length of sentence and save on jail and prison costs that have become unaffordable. It would have let the accused know from the outset what penalties they face, a matter of fundamental due process rights. 

Medical Parole could get easier

The Senate passed SB 280 to let the parole board approve medical  parole by a simple majority vote that includes at least three supporters. The original version of the bill would have let two Parole Board members okay this kind of release at a hearing with three board members. The bill went to House Criminal Justice.

House blocks two bills to expand death penalty, Keeps cold case murder unit

The House voted 176-153 to table HB162, which would give the death penalty for any murder. The Criminal Justice Committee backed the bill 11-6, but its chairman, Elaine Swinford, made the floor motion to lay the bill aside.     Unless lawmakers actively revive the bill right away, it would effectively die after the  March 29 crossover deadline to send all House bills to the Senate. We have heard of no interest in doing that. 

The House killed HB 1706 to impose the death penalty for homicides committed during robbery, or by more than one person, or under circumstances that are “especially heinous, cruel, or depraved or that involve torture or serious physical abuse to the victim.” CCJR warned the bill could broaden the death penalty to include just about any murder.

The House passed HB 138 to preserve and pay for the cold case murder unit through a non-lapsing fund within the AG’s Office.  The Feb. 1 roll call vote was 254-93. No public hearing is scheduled in the Senate yet, but it should be an early one.

House backs drug courts, decriminalizes weed

The House overwhelming passed HB 1665 to enable superior and district court judges to start drug courts similar to one in Strafford County. Two graduates of the Strafford program told lawmakers how it saved their lives. Tina Nadeau, chief justice of the Superior court system, urged lawmakers to pass this enabling legislation for every local court to copy the idea. The Senate Judiciary Committee has not a set a hearing date yet. 

Libertarians showed up in force to support several bills decriminalizing drug use, and they won two huge victories in the House. It passed HB 1526 by a vote of 162-161 to decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. House Speaker Bill O’Brien could have killed the bill by voting against it, but he chose not to vote. 

Lawmakers passed HB 1615 to decriminalize growing industrial hemp whenever two other New England states pass similar legislation. The product is a controlled drug today because it gives a buzz similar to pot.

By a vote of 228-89, the House killed HB 1705 to legalize, regulate and tax the growing and selling of marijuana. 

HB 1527 to allow the growing and processing of marijuana died also died on the House floor. 

Libertarians favored HB 1531 to repeal the punishments of crimes with no victim, such as drug use.  It died on the House floor 237-40.

The House killed HB 1518 to give any sex offender against a child a minimum 20-40 year sentence. Second offenses would bring life without parole. Lawmakers said current laws allowing a judges to impose a minimum of zero to 25 years for a first offense against a child are harsh enough.

The House Education Committee will hold a public hearing March 20 on HB 1331 to require schools and school districts to fire any employee who has to register as a sex offender against a minor. Testimony begins at 10:30 a.m. in Room 208 of the Legislative Office Building. 

The House killed HB 1249 which would have created the new felony of failing to report child abuse. Lawmakers thought that was too harsh a punishment and could have unexpected results.

The House killed HB 1562 to punish kids who text or email each other sexual images of themselves or share them with others. Staff from the Hudson School District told lawmakers about an epidemic of sexting at their middle school, one that student leaders wanted criminal fines for. The bill died 176-110 after lawmakers urged the schools to find a less punitive solution. 

The House tabled SB1709 to make it a felony to fail to report a missing or dead child. The Criminal Justice Committee had voted 17-0 to study the bill, but chairman Elaine Swinford moved to set it aside. 

Other Key bills

The House passed HB 1168 to open any annulled criminal records to the public, but the record will say the conviction has been annulled. Employers can only ask a job applicants if they have criminal convictions that have never been annulled. The bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and no hearing is set yet.

By a 209-134 vote the House killed HB 1179 that would have extended the sentence of anyone convicted of assaulting a nurse, doctor, EMT or other healthcare worker. Dozens of healthcare workers spoke in favor of the bill as did the Hospital Association. 

The House passed HB1259 to let county jails reject prisoners who arrive from weekend home release with serious medical problems that started while the inmates were on the outside. The prisoner will have to pay for their own emergency medical treatment and get well before returning to custody. CCJT strongly opposed the bill as vaguely worded and unfair, but the sponsors insisted it would only apply to a small number of cases.

The House overwhelmingly killed HB 1667 to try 17-year-old defendants as juveniles and not as adults, unless the crime is heinous. The prime sponsor, Rep. Mary Stuart Gile of Concord, said the scientific research shows that teenagers still have immature brains and judgment. CCJR testified that prison is too harsh a place for youths, except in rare cases. 

The House killed HB 1372 to make inmates between the ages of 17 and 21 earn their GEDs or high school diplomas as a condition of making parole.