By Grant Bosse
(CONCORD) New Hampshire’s newly enacted mandatory parole law differs from a Texas program that supporters cited as a case study in how prison reform would reduce recidivism and control costs. Under the New Hampshire statute, passed this spring under Senate Bill 500, all inmates must be paroled within nine months of the end of their maximum sentence. But the Texas parole program that Granite State lawmakers used as a guide does not allow for automatic parole for all inmates.
SB 500 was based on the work of legislative study committee tasked with reducing recidivism and the growing budgets at the Department of Corrections. Based on research from the Council of State Governments, the Pew Center on the States, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Lead sponsor Sen. Sylvia Larsen (D-Concord) cited the CSG’s January 2010 report “Justice Reinvestment in New Hampshire” during a the Senate Judiciary Committee’s public hearing on SB 500 in February.
Marshall Clement represented CSG’s Justice Center at the hearing, testifying mandatory supervision of inmates was based on data from 12 states. He specifically cited programs instituted in 2007 in Texas and Kansas. Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn recently told the Union Leader that the New Hampshire program was based on experiences in Texas, Kansas, and Arizona. But none of those states mandates parole for all inmates, and Texas excludes the most serious sex offenders entirely.
Mark Levin is the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and has been the leading advocate for parole reforms in that state. In a January column in the Dallas Morning News, Levin writes that Texas officials reserve the right to withhold parole from the worst inmates.
In Texas, parole is a privilege, not a right. Inmates demonstrate their commitment to change through good behavior and completion of work, education and treatment programs. Each case is reviewed based on individualized factors and the severity of the offense.
Furthermore, the most dangerous Texas sex offenders are ineligible for parole. The most seriously violent inmates serve 87.5 percent of their sentences, with serious sex offenders serving 97.5 percent. Yet two-thirds of offenders enter prison for a nonviolent offense.
This contrasts with the New Hampshire law, which mandates release of nonviolent inmates who have served 120% of their minimum sentences, and all inmates within nine months of their maximum sentences. The only exception to the mandatory outside supervision period are sex offenders subject to pending civil commitment proceedings.
Kansas’s parole and probation programs have been held up for years as models for other states to follow in order to reduce recidivism. Unlike New Hampshire law, Kansas does not mandate parole for all inmates. In fact, the Kansas program relies heavily on behavioral incentives.
At the recommendation of the task force, in May 2007, the Kansas Legislature approved a package of criminal justice legislation which included:
* creation of a performance-based grant program for community corrections programs to design local strategies to reduce revocations by 20 percent;
* establishment of a 60-day program credit to increase the number of people who successfully complete educational, vocational, and treatment programs prior to release; and
* restoration of earned time credits for good behavior for nonviolent offenders.
Despite recent success in cutting recidivism rates, Kansas budget writers are cutting back support for the initiative, as reported in April by the Kansas City Star.
The Kansas method of preparing inmates for re-entering society was considered the crown jewel of correctional systems worldwide. Congress in 2008 established “Second Chance” grants to help other states create the kinds of programs launched in Kansas — for drug rehabilitation, education, family reintegration and transitional housing.
Recidivism rates — the percent of ex-convicts committing new crimes — had in 2007 plunged statewide to 2.2 percent, less than half the recidivism of the early part of the decade.
The number of parolees re-convicted for felonies fell 36 percent. The total prison population and new admissions also were on the decline, enabling the Department of Corrections to project that Kansas needn’t worry about expanding its prison capacity for 10 years.
The recession and consecutive budget blowouts have thrown that momentum into reverse.
According to the CSG’s Justice Center, Arizona has not yet implemented any prison or parole reforms based on the CSG model.
The CSG’s Justice Center tracks fourteen states, including New Hampshire, that it is working with on prison and parole reform. Eight of these states have not yet enacted laws based on the CSG findings; Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Four states have implemented CSG recommendations, but include significant incentives for inmates in determining who received parole; Kansas, Rhode Island, Texas, and Vermont. Each of these states has also increased state spending on rehabilitation programs and parole officers.
Only New Hampshire and Connecticut mandate the release of all inmates for a period of supervision before the completion of their maximum sentences.