NH prison reform bill close to becoming a law

April 23, 2010
Source:  Shira Schoenberg,  Concord Monitor

CONCORD, N.H. — The public would not see an immediate influx of newly paroled prisoners under reforms meant to lower the state’s population of inmates.

The New Hampshire House on Wednesday passed a Senate bill aimed at lowering recidivism rates. Because of a change in the House exempting some domestic violence crimes from early release, the bill now returns to the Senate.

If the bill does become law, the changes would be phased in gradually over several months.

While nonviolent offenders would be released on parole after serving 120 percent of their minimum sentence, that would only be the case for inmates sentenced after July 1, not those already incarcerated.

State officials praised the House vote as an important step toward reducing recidivism.

“I think that’s a strong statement that this is a public safety initiative that can make a difference,” said Attorney General Michael Delaney.

The bill mandates that parolees who commit violations serve 90 days in prison, whether the violations relate to misbehavior or a failure to complete treatment. Today, sentences for parole violations can be days or months, depending on the offense.

The legislation would establish more active supervision for people on probation or parole for the first nine to 18 months, depending on the crime, with a lower level of supervision after that. It would go into effect only for prisoners placed on probation or parole after July 1.

The bill would allow probation officers to impose a one- to five- day jail sentence on a probationer who re-offends, instead of keeping the person in jail for up to a month waiting for a hearing.

The next set of major changes would go into effect in October.

The bill states that all inmates be released on parole nine months before the expiration of their maximum prison term, which would create time for them to be monitored in their communities. The provision would apply to prisoners with at least nine months left on their sentences as of Oct. 1.

For sexually violent offenders, the county attorney or attorney general would be notified nine months before the prisoner is eligible for parole so the attorney could petition for an involuntary civil commitment if the offender remains dangerous.

Also in October, the state would offer an intermediate sanction program, which means if a parolee were threatened with revocation of parole, that person could enter a seven-day residential program in a halfway house instead of going through a parole revocation hearing and possibly returning to prison.

Because of the gradual nature of the program, it would take time for the state to see results. In fiscal year 2011, which begins in June, the state expects just 36 additional people to be released from prison due to the legislation. Last year, the state released 1,650 prisoners, of whom just over 1,000 were put on parole and 150 on probation, Department of Corrections spokesman Jeff Lyons said.

The number is expected to jump to 342 additional inmates released in fiscal year 2012, then drop to about 150 for the following two years. The state plans to create a new community corrections unit as of July 1, and Lyons said another six case counselors would be hired by August to handle the additional population.

“The goal is they’d be successful within the programs being developed so fewer would be coming back to prison, to be released again,” Lyons said.

Delaney said much of the hard work remains once the bill becomes law.

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