Senate committee moves parole leniency bill forward, drawing ire of officers

Monitor staff
Wednesday, December 06, 2017

A bill expanding sentencing flexibility for parole violators drew quick opposition from police and parole officer unions after the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended it in a Tuesday vote.

House Bill 143, as amended by the committee, would allow the state parole board to waive additional jail time for those found in violation of their conditions of release, as long as they enter into and complete an intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment program.

The committee unanimously voted the bill onto the Senate consent calendar, which fast-tracks it to an up-or-down vote in the full Senate.

Under present law, those who violate their parole automatically face that jail time – known as a recommittal period – for up to 90 days before being eligible for parole again. The parole board can reduce or eliminate that additional jail time as they see fit, but not for parolees who were convicted of violent or sexual crimes.

Tuesday’s amended bill could remove the prohibition on lowering jail time for those violent or sexual offenders, provided they seek out and complete the treatment program.

Former House speaker Donna Sytek, who pressed for the legislation and co-authored the amendment, said the bill was meant to help certain parolees get into residential treatment rather than incarceration. For some individuals, a community treatment option would be likely more effective at rehabilitation, she said.

“We want the ability to reverse somebody who has been parole-violated, has got a drug problem, and has the ability to get a treatment bed,” said Sytek, who chairs the parole board. “In order to make that happen, we need a change in the law.”

But representatives of the New England Police Benevolent Association (NEPBA) and the New Hampshire parole and probation officers union argued that the change would give too much power to the parole board and that lessening or eliminating sentences could be dangerous.

“The concern is simply public safety,” said a statement released by NEPBA. “If these parolees are not sanctioned for their bad behavior, then the public remains at risk when they continue to offend without consequences.”

Speaking after the vote, Brian Benard, president of the parole officers union, broadly agreed.

The latest version, co-authored by the advocacy group New Futures, is a departure from the original bill, which gave the board authority to reduce recommittal sentences without the requirement that parolees seek drug treatment. Sytek said the bill had been changed in response to the concerns.

Union representatives, meanwhile, said the development of the bill had been rushed and kept out of the public eye. The vote was held without discussion; the last hearing on the bill was held in April, representatives said.

Charles Flahive, a New Hampshire lobbyist for NEPBA, said that the organization had little warning of the upcoming change.

“We were caught off guard by this,” he said after the vote.

In its statement, NEPBA went further, calling the process a “horrible political game.”

Sytek brushed off the criticism, countering that the organizations had been given three opportunities to meet with her on the bill and had turned them down. Union representatives said they had hoped to meet with the full parole board instead.

Meanwhile, disagreement persists on what the bill does. Committee chairwoman Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, said she had been assured by Sytek that the new sentencing flexibility would not apply for violent or sexual offenders. The text of the proposed amendment suggests otherwise.

For her part, Sytek says she disagrees with unions’ concerns about recidivism.

“These are people who have already served their sentence,” she said. “They’re out on parole. They’re being supervised. And if they’ve still got a drug problem, it’s more important that they get treatment than that they spend 90 days in a prison not getting any treatment.”

The amended bill will appear before the full Senate next session.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)