Republican state Senators are playing politics with public safety
Concord - An article in today's Concord Monitor calls out Republican legislators flip-flopping on SB500. SB500, or the Justice Reinvestment Act, reforms New Hampshire's parole system by requiring criminals who are set to be released from prison to participate in a nine month mandatory strict supervision program. The program lasts one month longer than the time during which people released from prison are most likely to re-offend, and this initiative has reduced or stopped the crime rate from increasing in every state in which it has been implemented.
But following the lead of their gubernatorial candidate John Stephen, several Republican legislators who voted for the bill have flip-flopped and are calling for repeal. Specifically the article notes that state Senator Pete Bragdon isn't being completely honest with voters about this legislation. He has claimed that his "understanding was that [the law] was for nonviolent offenders only." But in addition to being a co-sponsor of the law, Sen. Bragdon actually voted for an amendment that expanded the reform to include those offenders.
Republican state Representative Gene Charron commented that, "Some people are back-stepping and grandstanding only because it's the political thing to do."
"This is the absolute worst kind of election year politics," said Harrell Kirstein press secretary for the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "Flip-flopping on a law that increases public safety, so that it can be used as a political weapon in an election is disgusting behavior. Stephen, Bragdon, and anyone else willing to jeopardize public safety for personal political gain isn't fit for office, here in New Hampshire or anywhere else in the country."
The full text of the article is below.
The recently enacted parole bill that's become the focus of the race for governor is stirring up more than just campaign rhetoric. It's also blurring the details of the debate that preceded the bill's passage.
Republican lawmakers who voted for the bill earlier this year said last week they would push to repeal part of the bill because, they say, they originally thought it only applied to offenders convicted of nonviolent crimes.
But a review of the bill's history - including legislative testimony and an independent report that helped shape the language of the final law - indicates the proposal was clearly intended to apply to all inmates, not just nonviolent offenders.
And while several people raised concerns about the bill when it was being debated in the Legislature, none seems to have centered on the objections presently being raised by John Stephen, the Republican candidate for governor: that it allows sex offenders to be released from prison before their maximum sentences have been reached.
The new law deals with parole for offenders in two classes. Prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses are required to be released after serving 120 percent of their minimum sentences. A second clause in the law refers to "all prisoners" and states that those offenders are to be released on parole nine months before the end of their maximum sentences. The early release is intended to be coupled with more intense supervision by corrections officials, with the goal of integrating offenders into their communities more easily and thus cutting down on re-offenses.
The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and was also endorsed by the state attorney general's office, Chief Justice John Broderick, many law enforcement groups and victims' rights advocates. The bill did meet resistance from members of the state's parole board, who warned that the changes would strip the board of its discretionary powers.
John Eckert, executive assistant to the parole board, also warned that the new parole system would limit incentives for inmates to improve their behavior, since they could be sure of release at least nine months before the end of the maximum prison sentences.
In addition, some parole officers said they were worried that the new parole system, with its requirements for more intensive oversight of released inmates, would overburden the state's probation and parole officers.
"Under this bill, offenders will continue to be released from prison without employment or suitable home plans . . . but now at a much greater rate," Paul Jacques, chief parole officer for the Nashua district, told a House committee.
The law also set the time parole violators must spend in prison at 90 days. Previously, parole violators had to serve out the remainder of their maximum sentences in prison.
But many lawmakers who worked on the bill - both Democrats and Republicans - have expressed frustration with the way it has been described on the campaign trail. Over the past two weeks, Stephen and his supporters have focused exclusively on the fact that the bill applies to all offenders, including those convicted of sexual crimes.
"The foolishness out there is very inappropriate because most of the people haven't even read the bill," said state Rep. Gene Charron, a Republican from Chester who worked on the parole bill and worked as superintendent of the Rockingham County jail before joining the Legislature. "Some people are back-stepping and grandstanding only because it's the political thing to do."
Among those who might fall under Charron's definition of "back-stepping" are state Sens. Peter Bragdon and Jeb Bradley, two Republicans who voted for the parole bill earlier this year but are now calling for a partial repeal.
Bragdon, who sponsored the parole bill and serves as the Senate minority leader, said he misunderstood the bill and thought it did not apply to violent offenders.
"My understanding was that it was for nonviolent offenders only," Bragdon told the Monitor last week. "Upon a more careful reading now, I see there's one part where it says all offenders, not just nonviolent offenders."
In fact, the bill was amended in the Senate to specify how the new parole system would deal with inmates convicted of "sexually violent" offenses. Bragdon voted for that amendment when it came before the Senate in March.
Bradley, who's also serving as co-chairman of Stephen's campaign, told the Conway Daily Sun the original bill was well-intentioned but needed to be fixed "before any more felons hit the streets." Like Bragdon, he pleaded ignorance of the bill's language.
"We were not told sexual predators or violent offenders were going to be released," Bradley said.
State Rep. Stephen Shurtleff, a Penacook Democrat who heads the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said such claims misrepresent the legislative debate surrounding the parole bill. He said House lawmakers specifically amended the bill, after it had been approved by the Senate, to expand the definition of violent offenses to include second-degree assault, stalking, burglary, criminal threatening and several other crimes.
"There was a lengthy public hearing, and this was all brought up in the testimony there," Shurtleff said. "This was no surprise to anybody. As for dealing with violent offenders, that was the whole intent of the law."
The idea for the parole reforms began more than a year ago with a 19-person study group that included lawmakers of both parties, representatives from the state's court system and the heads of the departments of human services and corrections. The group received help from the Council of State Governments, a nonpartisan group that provides research for legislators, courts and other public agencies.
A 15-page report by the council set the framework for the bill that would shape New Hampshire's new parole system. The report made clear that any successful reform would apply to the entire prison population.
"Ensure everyone leaving prisons receives at least nine months of post-release community-based supervision," read one of the report's six legislative recommendations. A member of the Council of State Governments also briefed the Senate Judiciary Committee on the proposal in February.
But if some lawmakers appear to have blurry memories of the bill they voted for, Gov. John Lynch, who supports the parole law, has blurred the edges of the law as well. In a press release responding to criticisms from Stephen in August, the Lynch campaign said the law "does not apply to people convicted of violent offenses."
The release seems to be alluding solely to the law's provision that allows for nonviolent offenders to be released after serving 120 percent of their minimum sentences. But it gives the impression that the entire law does not apply to violent offenders, which is not the case.