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Call for earlier parole aims to address over-incarceration at N.H. State Prison

  • The former warden tower at the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 3/3/2021 5:32:16 PM

It’s been 40 years since Edward Coolidge was released from New Hampshire state prison – and nearly 60 since he committed his grisly crime – but his case still leaves a legacy.

The former New Hampshire resident, convicted for second-degree murder in the 1964 kidnapping, rape and killing of 14-year-old Pamela Mason, walked free in 1982 after a parole hearing found that he could be released after time served.

That decision to release him only 10 years after his conviction, which set off outrage just as the United States was embracing tough-on-crime policy changes, had an impact on one New Hampshire lawmaker. In 1983, Donna Sytek, then the chairwoman of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and later the House Speaker and chairwoman of the parole board, passed a law that would prevent future inmates from becoming eligible for parole until they had served their minimum sentence – and possibly later.

The new law followed a philosophy known as “truth in sentencing,” and Sytek was its champion.

But this year, some lawmakers are challenging that law, arguing that it has led to over-incarceration in the Granite State and has discouraged rehabilitation efforts behind bars.

On Wednesday, the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard testimony on a bill that would reduce the amount of time an inmate has to wait until they receive their first parole hearing.

House Bill 598 would allow an incarcerated person to be eligible for parole as early as halfway through their minimum sentence.

Under the bill, brought forward by Rep. Linda Harriot-Gathright, a Nashua Democrat, the parole eligibility would start exactly 50% through that minimum sentence.

Currently, under New Hampshire law, an inmate must serve the entire minimum amount of his or her sentence. And the state adds on 150 “bad time” days for every year for which an inmate is sentenced, some or all of which may be erased for good behavior.

If an inmate were sentenced to 10 to 20 years, he or she would need to serve 10 years plus 1,500 days (an additional four years) before being eligible for parole. But if that inmate were on good behavior for all 10 years, he or she could eliminate all 1,500 days and be eligible for parole at the original 10-year mark.

New Hampshire has one of the strictest parole policies in the country; many states allow inmates to qualify for parole after a certain percentage of their sentences have been served.

“Truth in sentencing is expensive and outdated,” said Harriett-Cathwright. “The 1980 notion that if we’re just extreme enough in our punishments we could deter or even end crime has been consistently disproven.”

The bill strikes at the heart of the policy set up by Sytek. On Wednesday, Sytek, who was replaced as chairwoman of the parole board in 2019 but still serves as a member, defended the philosophy before the Criminal Justice committee and opposed the bill.

“If you think sentences are too harsh, you should change the penalties in the statute,” Sytek said. “But painting all crimes with a broad brush and saying you get a 50% discount I think is misguided.”

Sytek also argued that the right avenue for an inmate who wants a shorter sentence and earlier eligibility for parole is through a sentencing rehearing.

Sytek was joined by a representative from the Department of Corrections and the New Hampshire State Police in opposition to the bill.

For John Tholl Jr., a parole board member and former lawmaker who chaired the Criminal Justice committee in the past, the reasons for his opposition are personal: His sister-in-law was killed by her adopted son in 2004. Passing the bill, he said, would give the convicted man an earlier chance at release.

“If this bill would pass it would traumatize my entire family, many of whom are deathly afraid of this person,” he said.

But advocates for reform, who include the Americans for Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys have said that the “truth in sentencing” policy is dated to the mentality of the 1980s, and argue it is responsible for the explosion in growth of New Hampshire’s prison population since that decade.

Since 1982, New Hampshire’s prison population has grown from around several hundred at any given time to several thousand.

Donna Brown, speaking on behalf of the criminal defense attorney association, spoke directly to the Coolidge case, arguing it had been used to pass an overly punitive law.

“There’s a saying that’s been around for a long time that says ‘hard cases make bad law,’” she said.

By reducing the waiting time for a parole hearing, the rehabilitative process of parole could work as intended, proponents argued, while still allowing the parole board to refuse applicants who aren’t ready to be released.

Joseph Lascaze the smart justice organizer at the ACLU who himself served 13 years in the New Hampshire prison system and is currently on parole, said that the policy makes inmates’ hopes of restoring themselves and rehabilitating harder to achieve.

“Truth in sentencing does not inspire confidence in the system,” he said. “It really only makes the system look extreme and inhumane.”

EvanorPanetta, a Nashua resident who was also formerly incarcerated in New Hampshire, agreed.

“A change in giving folks an opportunity behind the walls to get that incentive to get out would be huge,” he said. “Some guys are just encouraged when they get in and never think to do more than they have to.”

Lascaze also argued that the re-sentencing hearing suggested by Sytek had a much too low success rate to be worth it for inmates to try.

In the end Wednesday, the majority on the committee disagreed; the bill was recommended “inexpedient to legislate” 11-8 in a party-line vote. It’ll be likely taken up by the House later this month.

Wednesday’s hearing on HB 598 accompanied another proposed bill, House Bill 138, which would require a parole hearing for those serving life sentences in New Hampshire after 25 years. Rep. Max Abramson, the Seabrook Republican who has sponsored that bill, said the hearings would give those in prison for life a chance at rehabilitation, even if small, which could boost morale and usher in self-improvement.

Opponents said it would undermine the intent of the life-without-parole sentences. Since the repeal of the death penalty in New Hampshire in 2019, those sentences include every person who has been convicted of capital murder.

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