As Senate passes amended parole board bill, parole officers still unsatisfied 

  • The Senate convenes at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Published: 1/4/2018 12:31:18 AM

A bill expanding the powers of the New Hampshire Parole Board passed the Senate on Wednesday after a rocky journey in which parole officers voiced criticism over what they describe as overreach.

But despite concessions made to assuage concerns, parole officers said they’re still unsatisfied with the final bill.

As amended, House Bill 143 would allow the parole board to grant leniency to offenders who violate their parole but seek out substance abuse treatment. Currently, parolees who do so are subject to 90-day “setback” periods during which they must be reincarcerated. HB 143 would allow those who complete a residential substance abuse program to have their sentences reduced at the discretion of the parole board.

The bill is meant to provide better, longer-term solutions for those with substance abuse disorder who run afoul of their paroles, according to Donna Sytek, a former House Speaker and current Parole Board chairwoman who helped draft and advocate for the legislation. To Sytek, the treatment will help rehabilitate people with criminal records and hopefully return them to the community sober, which in turn will bolster public safety.

But parole officers say the bill will lead to excessive leniency and undermine the effectiveness of the threat of mandatory recommital sentences for parole violators – which would in effect, officers say, undermine public safety.

On Wednesday, Steve Arnold, state director of the New England Police Benevolent Association, said the group will attempt to lobby Gov. Chris Sununu to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

“The bottom line is we want him to understand exactly where we’re coming from before he puts his fingerprint to the page,” Arnold said of the governor.

The bill has had a twisting ride; after being recommended “inexpedient-to-legislate” by the Senate Judiciary Committee in the spring, it was resurrected ahead of the full legislative session last month. The legislation that initially re-emerged granted the parole broad powers to reduce the recommital sentences – including for those convicted of violent or sexual crimes – provided the parolees enter substance abuse treatment.

An initial outcry from officers prompted some changes: The new bill no longer applies to those with violent and sexual offenses, to start. Also, after concern about the potential lack of accountability for parolees engaged in outpatient substance abuse programs, the bill requires the program to be residential.

But Arnold said the bill is still missing a key component: officer input. There should be mandatory, case-by-case consultation with parole officers over whether reducing the sentence for certain parole violators is appropriate, he said.

“The probation parole officers, who are the people that are dealing with these parolees, should have some say in whether they should be allowed to go to treatment facilities,” he said.

Sen. Sharon Carson, who submitted the latest version of the bill to the Senate as a floor amendment, was not available to comment Wednesday. But Sytek, speaking Wednesday, rejected Arnold’s plea for officer input.

“Totally inappropriate,” she said, adding that the decision should be up to the parole board. “That’s like the judge can only impose a sentence with the consent of the prosecutor.”

The drafting process behind the bill was rife with often-bitter tension. Parole officers have accused Sytek of not permitting them to meet with the full parole board to hear their concerns of the bills; a meeting of that kind did not occur until December. But speaking on the concerns, Sytek argued that the Parole Board had made as many changes as were reasonable in the face of officers’ concerns. Not receiving an endorsement at the end of it, she said, was disheartening.

“I made concession after concession to get their support, and in the end I got nothing,” she said.

Meanwhile, for Arnold, the final version is to some extent beyond the point; he and other parole officers generally oppose any attempts to reduce recommital sentences in the first place, he said. Substance abuse treatment, where necessary, should be provided while the violators are incarcerated, he said.

“We’re in the business of putting people in prison, not giving people second chances, third chances because they have an addiction problem,” he said. “We’re not unsympathetic to the fact that people need treatment options, but let’s look at the big picture: The state doesn’t want to pay for treatment in the joint; they want someone else to pay (for) it outside the prison.”

Now, as the bill heads back to the House for a second reading, bridging the impasse may come down to the governor’s pen.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at, or on Twitter at

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