By Chris Dornin
John Stephen is telling a big lie about the new parole law, SB 500, in his race to become governor. SB 500 makes sure all inmates leave prison with a parole officer to watch them.
In a recent press release, Stephen called this visionary legislation “Governor Lynch’s misguided policy of letting violent felons out of prison early. As a former prosecutor who helped to ensure that we have tough truth in sentencing laws, I am outraged by this new law. Governor Lynch’s new law erodes our public safety by putting these sex offenders and other violent criminals back on the street.”
Stephen is playing the hate card, and he should know better. But if he really believes his own words, he is fool. Previously, more than 200 people a year, some of the most violent, served out their maximum terms and left prison with no help on the streets. SB 500 places those people on tightly monitored parole outside the walls the last nine months of their maximum sentence. All inmates need that structure to rejoin society safely.
It would be folly to deny this vital support to the very people who pose the greatest threat. Holding them in prison that last nine months sounds tough on crime in sound bytes, but it would undermine the public safety a governor is sworn to protect. Those inmates would soon leave anyway.
SB 500 won strong, bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate committees and floor votes after a year-long, richly data-driven study supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, NH Charitable Foundation, the US Justice Department and the National Association of the States. A blue-ribbon state policy commission led by the attorney general closely tracked and accepted the findings of that study, which became SB 500.
Members of the task force included the chief justices of all three levels of the court system, the Senate president, the House speaker, the Governor’s Office, other top Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the commissioner of Health and Human Services, the commissioner of Corrections, county officials, and other experts. Few laws in state history have been so well and dispassionately researched.
All the key stakeholders had many chances to give input, including victim advocates, the police, prosecutors, the Parole Department, and the Parole Board. It’s disingenuous for that group to claim it was denied a voice in the process. Now it is orchestrating an 11th-hour effort to protect its benighted bureaucratic turf. John Stephen has climbed aboard.
The old way of dealing with inmates was to give them a revolving door out from prison and back inside. Most of the people who served their maximum sentences left prison without a parole officer, money, housing, employment, and family support because they had been gone so long. Many committed new crimes in the first nine months out, the greatest danger period.
Under strict monitoring, people can be directed to treatment and reentry interventions designed to stop the cycle of re-offending. The state has won federal seed grants to help pay for these services until it can divert savings from prison cost reductions into community programs.
These reforms are too important to fall victim to election-year scare tactics heavily funded by deep pockets from outside New Hampshire. The new law will protect the community better than before, lower recidivism, and make our state a safer place to live.
This law is not about being nice to bad guys. Former House Speaker Donna Sytek, the Republican who spearheaded the truth-in-sentencing law, supports SB 500. If Stephen wants the new law to be an election litmus test, so be it.
Chris Dornin of Concord is a retired Statehouse reporter and a former prison counselor and volunteer.