Reform bill in N.H. House would cut cash bail for most offenders

  • UNH Law professor Buzz Scherr and ACLU Legal Director Gilles Bissonnette testify in support of Senate Bill 556, a bail reform bill, before members of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. Alyssa Dandrea / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 3/27/2018 6:37:01 PM

A bail reform effort making its way through the Legislature aims to reduce the number of criminal defendants being held in jail solely because they cannot post the required cash for their release.

Senate Bill 556 would reform New Hampshire’s bail laws to allow for the majority of criminal offenders – who are neither a danger to themselves or the community – to be released on personal recognizance, not cash bail. The bill also seeks to streamline the annulment process by making it more understandable, by speeding up the timeline prosecutors have to respond to requests and by including a provision for individuals to request a waiver of the $100 petition fee.

Proponents of the bill argue people detained simply because they cannot afford bail are at greater risk of losing their jobs, housing and, in some cases, visitation rights with their children.

“It’s a concept that protects taxpayers. Why should taxpayers be paying to jail people simply because they cannot afford bail?” Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, a sponsor of the bill, said as he testified Tuesday before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

New Hampshire counties spend approximately $110 a day to jail an individual. Americans For Prosperity’s New Hampshire chapter said Tuesday that’s a conservative estimate, as some counties bear twice that cost per person, per day.

While SB 556 has gained strong bipartisan support in the Legislature, it is facing resistance from the law enforcement community. Police chiefs say they support the concept of “common sense” bail reform, but are wary about whether the bill could impact a judge’s ability to impose cash bail for repeat, violent offenders.

Tuftonboro police Chief Andrew Shagoury, president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, said the bill signals a major shift in policy in the state and must be fully vetted to ensure the courts have the ability to determine the dangerous an offender poses to the public. And if a person at moderate risk is released, services should be in place to monitor that individual, he said.

“We shouldn’t be running debtors prison, but we also need accountability in the system,” he said.

Shagoury also noted that law enforcement agencies are not automatically notified when a person’s criminal charges are annulled by the courts. Should SB 556 pass, it needs to include a process for which police receive that notification so they can flag their own files and make sure those records are not publicly released, he said.

Legislative sponsors say they’ve worked in consultation with the courts to anticipate unforeseen consequences or added administrative burdens. While the court system does not generally take a position on pending legislation, Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau has reviewed the proposal and offered suggested changes for the committee to consider.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire is backing the bill, which it also helped draft with input from University of New Hampshire Law professor Buzz Scherr. Scherr said the goal was to accomplish bail reform within the context of New Hampshire’s existing statute rather than a “start from scratch” approach.

Data requested by the group from Manchester’s Valley Street jail last week shows that 40 people are being held pretrial on $1,000 bail or less. Of those 40 prisoners, 30 were being held for nonviolent crimes. Scherr said that translates into $3,300 a day to hold people who could be released on personal recognizance – and, if necessary, pretrial monitoring.

Jeanne Hruska, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, testified that if bail reform fails in the state, she is concerned the for-profit bail industry could gain traction and further exploit low-income people.

Representatives from a couple of those companies spoke largely against the measure Tuesday. Sheri Davis, owner of Bailn-U Bail Bonds, said comprehensive bail reform could have unintended consequences, including to public safety and to the individual offender, especially those facing drug addiction. She said some families advocate for their loved ones to stay in jail for a few days to detox and to allow for them to be connected with social services.

But some proponents of the bill argued that jails should not serve a secondary role as detox centers.

“The bail system is not the solution to the opioid crisis,” Hruska said.

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

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