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N.H. Adult Parole Board mulls restricting public access to hearings



Monitor staff
Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The New Hampshire Parole Board is considering closing its proceedings to the public and limiting access to crime victims, based on the advice of a state attorney.

Members of the public have long been allowed to attend parole hearings and obtain audio recordings of them upon request, but the Adult Parole Board is questioning whether those past practices violate the state’s right-to-know law. The law specifically exempts parole records from public disclosure and allows applicants to the board to be heard in nonpublic session.

The issue is now under review by the state attorney general’s office, which previously advised the board to close all future hearings with the understanding that victims would be allowed only to testify but not to attend. The state’s top prosecutors are now pedaling back on that recommendation.

“This office gave guidance to the adult parole board, and at this time that guidance has been suspended so the matter can be further reviewed,” Associate Attorney General Jane Young said by phone Wednesday night. “The purpose of the review is to ensure compliance with the Constitution, the various statutes at place and to ensure maximum transparency in the process.”

Young said all Adult Parole Board hearings have and will continue to remain open until a final decision is reached.

The possibility that future hearings could be closed to the public has drawn sharp criticism from the victim advocacy community. Advocates said they fear further limitations on crime victims who may want to keep abreast of an offender’s release plans or respond to issues as they arise during a hearing.

“Meaningful input from crime victims should help guide the parole board’s decisions about the status of a convicted offender,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “The information victims provide can be critical when determining an offender’s potential risk to the victim and to the public.”

Grady Sexton said the fact that such a policy is even under consideration shows why amending the New Hampshire Constitution to include basic rights for crime victims is so important. A proposal to do just that was shot down by the House in late April after overwhelmingly passing the Senate weeks earlier.

“Victims deserve the same guarantee offenders get: that their rights will be recognized and upheld,” she said. “Without the protections of the Constitution, these types of policy changes will continue to occur, and protections for victims will continue to be rolled back.”

It’s unclear why the board is suddenly considering changing its policy on public access. The board has previously come under scrutiny for its handling of past cases, accused of loosely applying rules, confronting attendees and of using foul language.

The New Hampshire Department of Corrections declined to weigh in on the proposed policy change Wednesday, but it acknowledged that it is aware of the Adult Parole Board’s efforts to review existing laws and ensure compliance with them. If changes are made, the Corrections Department said it will adjust its own practices to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Board Chairwoman Donna Sytek did not return a call Wednesday from the Monitor seeking comment on the policy changes under consideration.

The Adult Parole Board, which reports to the governor, asks on its website that anyone wishing to attend a hearing contact the office in advance.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)