Another View -- Chris Dornin: Lawmakers should review prison rules

I enjoyed reading David Solomon’s recent column about a problem I have worked on for years: How to make the Department of Corrections send all of its administrative rules to lawmakers for vetting and approval. Our nonprofit agency wrote a bill this term at the State House to make that happen, HB 192.

Every other state agency goes through this tough review process for its administrative rules, which have the force of law. So should the Department of Corrections.

Our bill is temporarily blocked in a House Committee, which is too bad.

Corrections badly needs this oversight because it wields huge power over men and women deprived of their liberty, which is the worst punishment, short of death, the state can impose. They earn a dollar a day, if they can get a job, and bunk two to an 80-square-foot cell.

Corrections has operated for years without full rulemaking oversight by the Legislature. The resulting mismanagement has forced at least 200 prisoners a year to go past their minimum release dates, and has unnecessarily cost New Hampshire taxpayers millions of dollars.

A corrections official told 50 members of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform in 2015 that only six prisoners required to take the sexual offender program would miss their minimum release dates. That was hard to believe at the time. It still is.

We worked for two years to secure an outside performance audit of the sexual offender treatment program. It confirmed what we were hearing from inmates unable to take that treatment program on time — that 200 of them were missing their minimum parole dates every year. Fewer than 10 percent were leaving prison at their minimum terms. They think that’s the fault of the state in most cases, and we agree.

Here’s why. The Department of Corrections years ago created a special review board, much like a parole board, but just for inmates convicted of sexual offenses who were nearing the end of their minimum terms. It has a bland name, the Administrative Review Committee, but it wields extraordinary power.

A recent audit report found that this secretive board almost never gave critical information on prisoners to the real Parole Board. Instead, it made recommendations for or against parole, which were followed by the Parole Board. The shadowy Administrative Review Committee was the real Parole Board for folks convicted of sexual offenses.

The audit confirmed this problem. It said the Parole Board ought to receive sexual offender “assessment scores, treatment progress, level of participation in treatment, and whether they showed signs of accepting responsibility for their crime. However, this information was not directly provided by the ISOT (sexual offender treatment) program.”

That was stunning news. The dubious Administrative Review Committee was in place for years without written policies to explain, shape, and justify it. The assessment scores, which are a reliable measure of the potential threat a person convicted of a sexual offense poses in the community, were almost never provided to the Parole Board.

Treatment progress reports, which show how well a prisoner has addressed the offending behavior that led to prison, and critical information about the level of participation in treatment were similarly withheld from the Parole Board.

At our insistence, the Corrections Department finally wrote some draft rules for the sexual offender treatment program last year. But those have never gone before lawmakers as we think they should.

Meanwhile, Corrections officials are trying hard to kill HB 192 before any public hearing on those proposed rules. But this legislation would apply to all correctional policies, not just the controversial sexual offender program. Every prison policy should go before the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules. That’s not much to ask.

Every other state agency submits to this important oversight. It could prevent a slew of problems. The flawed treatment program for people convicted of sexual offenses is just one of them.

Chris Dornin is a cofounder of Citizens for Criminal Justice Reform.