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My Turn: Criminal justice reform would harm N.H., a state that does it right



For the Monitor
Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Criminal justice reform is frequently discussed, however it means different things to different people. To some it is about a fair and just system protecting the rights of individuals while assuring the safety and order of our communities. To others it is a benign sounding marketing term that allows them to change the system to get what they otherwise know would be unpalatable to the general public if they said what it really meant. Such ideas include the legalization or decriminalization of all drugs, not allowing arrests except for very few serious felonies, and releasing nearly everyone on bail no matter the risk to the public or likelihood they will appear.

Some of these changes relate to bail reform. We share the concerns that were raised by the county attorneys. We agreed with the bill because of changes made to address the determination of dangerousness, the study commission created to look at pre-trial services and assessments, and assurances by proponents that the consideration of addiction, homelessness, and poverty would not be misused to allow dangerous people to be released.

One concern is that the lack of pre-trial services will create problems. The only way bail reform will work is if fair and consistent pretrial services are available statewide. That won’t be cheap. Washington, D.C. spends over $63 million a year with 365 full time equivalent employees. New Jersey hired 272 state employees and 20 Superior Court judges. County Attorneys in New Jersey had to handle extra hearings. These costs, along with the costs of failures to appear, will likely be more than the savings from releasing more pretrial detainees.

Pre-trial risk assessments are a component of this process. These assessments have come under criticism by some bail reform advocates like the Marshall Project and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. These assessments are part of a nationwide agenda being promoted by out of state billionaire funded advocacy groups like the Pretrial Justice Institute which is promoting 3 Days Count here. At this point there is no baseline data or a study showing how many of those presently held in pretrial confinement would be released under the program. Some abhor the term “risk” and use the term “success” to whitewash the fact that releasing the defendant creates a level of risk to victims and the public. Some assessments give near equal weight for a person who, due to a youthful mistake, committed one misdemeanor years ago and someone who has shown contempt for our laws during their adult life by committing multiple felonies and continue to prey upon our society.

Some bail reform advocates are actually claiming we need to stop arresting people as if that magically will gain defendant compliance with the laws. These groups are pushing what may well be failed experiments in other states before the effectiveness of those changes are known. They often cite their own studies of their own work or groups financially tied to them to support their agenda.

Almost all of this discussion is focused on the defendant with scant attention to the victims. They talk about the cost of incarceration but not the cost to victims and society. There is talk of the impact on the defendant being held, but not a word on the lifelong impact on victims.

In reading the news, several times a week there are stories like the recent arrest of a Pembroke man for sexual assault who has lengthy record but did not have to register as a sex offender. There was the man arrested at a Concord school making his fourth arrest in nearly as many days, one arrest about eight hours after a release from a prior arrest. There was the man released on reduced bail under bail reform for firearms charges who killed Deputy Cole in Maine. There was a 28-year-old man with more than 100 entries on his adult criminal record who killed Officer Gannon of Yarmouth, Mass. A man who two days after being released for attacking a police officer is arrested naked after breaking into a Concord apartment, terrorizing the residents, and choking a dog. There are many more cases in the news of defendants failing to abide by court orders or the terms of bail.

Nationwide, there are many discussions on criminal justice reform and particularly bail reform. Recent murders by people assessed as low risk in states that have engaged in these reforms should make us take a slow and deliberate look before proceeding further. A recent independent study from George Mason University shows Kentucky has seen an increase in failures to appear and recidivism. Increases in either are increased costs to society. Another recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice says New Hampshire has one of the lowest prison populations and prison population rates in the country.

New Hampshire has consistently been rated one of the safest states in the country. We have one of the five lowest incarceration rates in the country. Perhaps instead of following what other states are doing, they should be copying what we have been doing.

(Andrew Shagoury is police chief in Tuftonboro and president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.)