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Parole board, officers seek to hammer out legislative differences

  • Steve Arnold, state director of the New England Police Benevolent Association, addresses the New Hampshire Parole Board at a meeting last week. Ethan DeWitt / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A rift over changes to New Hampshire’s parole system may be nearing a compromise after the state parole board and parole officers union agreed to collaborate on a bill affecting parole violators.

House Bill 143 – which would allow the parole board to reduce “setback” sentences for parole violators who seek drug and alcohol treatment – was presented by the board as a means to assist those with substance abuse. Currently, most people who violate parole must serve a 90-day incarceration sentence; the bill would allow the board to waive some or all of those 90 days if the violator successfully completes residential treatment.

But after the bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and headed to the consent calendar, parole officers cried foul, calling the new powers a threat to public safety. Of particular concern was language in the newly amended bill that would extend the leniency to those on parole for sexual or violent crimes.

Complicating the dispute have been accusations by both groups of the other’s unwillingness to communicate throughout the bill’s creation. At one point, the New England Police Benevolent Association (NEPBA) called the process “a horrible political game.”

Now, two weeks ahead of the legislative session, the two sides may be cautiously approaching agreement. At a meeting Friday, parole board Chairwoman Donna Sytek presented an amended version of the bill that would eliminate sexual and violent criminals from eligibility for leniency on parole setbacks.

The parole board was never intending to grant leniency to violent or sexual criminals in the first place, Sytek argued.

“We wouldn’t let out a sex offender anyway, so we’ve got no problem making that provision not apply,” she said. She said the violent crime provision was meant to encompass only those convicted of robbery.

Sytek also said she agreed to change the language specifying which substance abuse treatment programs would qualify for the reduced sentences – from outpatient to inpatient. Parole officers had argued that outpatient programs are too unsupervised and would increase the opportunity for a parole violator to reoffend.

Parole officers are considering the latest amendment this week and are planning to offer their own version in return by Friday, according to Steve Arnold, state director of NEPBA. If the two sides can agree on final language, Sytek said she would request that Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, remove the bill from the consent calendar and seek a floor amendment with the changes. Carson, who could not be reached for comment, is aware of the last-minute negotiations, Sytek said.

Still, it remains to be seen whether Sytek’s changes will satisfy members of the union, who at Friday’s meeting signaled disagreement on more than expanded eligibility for leniency.

At issue, both sides say, is public safety.

“Our goal is to maintain and ensure public safety and not let criminals commit crimes and just turn around and say they’re drug addicts and we need to get a treatment,” Arnold said.

Sytek had a different take.

“The parole board is firmly committed to refer people who need treatment to an appropriate level of care,” she said. “If somebody needs residential treatment, it’s in the interest of public safety to see if they get it before they return to the community.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)