As NH prison population declines, parole violators make up bigger share

By ETHAN DeWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 09-11-2023 12:47 PM

More than a decade ago, a Democratic-majority New Hampshire Legislature passed a short-lived effort to reduce the number of people jailed for violating their parole. 

Today, amid new data showing high proportions of parole violators behind bars, some lawmakers are considering revisiting that model.

Back in 2010, New Hampshire had seen 20 years of stable, low crime rates, lawmakers noted in their preamble to the reform bill. Yet the state’s prison population had increased by 31 percent since 1990, the preamble continued, and the number of parole violators sent back to prison had jumped 50 percent since 2000.

Senate Bill 500 attempted to reverse those trends. It named a series of scenarios in which the New Hampshire Parole Board was required to release someone on parole. Any person convicted of a nonviolent crime would be required to be released after serving 120 percent of their minimum sentences, the new law stated. Anyone who had never been released on parole would be automatically released nine months before their maximum sentence. 

The law also stipulated that anyone recommitted to prison for violating parole would be kept in prison for no more than 90 days before being re-released on parole. 

To supporters of the reforms, the mandatory releases – coupled with a new requirement that parolees receive nine months of state supervision – would help to reduce lengthy prison time for nonviolent criminals who made mistakes on parole. 

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But the reforms received backlash from police unions and others, who cited safety concerns. And most were soon undone when Republicans took back the House and Senate in 2011 and passed bills limiting or repealing many of the changes. 

Today, the New Hampshire Adult Parole Board maintains broad discretion over whether to approve parole or revoke it. And new data shows that the proportion of people incarcerated due to parole violations has increased in recent years. 

Throughout 2020, parole violators made up an average of 61 percent of all prison admissions, a jump from 46 percent in 2015, according to an analysis by the Council of State Governments. By December 2020, that portion grew to nearly 75 percent, the Department of Corrections says. Among states the CSG could obtain data for, New Hampshire has the 10th highest proportion. 

This year, lawmakers are studying the parole board system to determine whether that proportion can and should be lowered. One topic up for discussion: Whether to explore legislation that could restore some of the reforms attempted in 2010.

Sen. Becky Whitley, a Hopkinton Democrat, said learning about New Hampshire’s high percentage of parole violators in prison prompted her to sponsor the bill creating the study commission she now chairs. 

“It’s much higher than the national average,” she said in an interview. “And I thought it was important to study this issue and understand why, and then also to make sure that the system that we have set up matches its intended goal.”

Department of Corrections officials note that the state’s prison population has decreased recently. 

At the study committee’s first meeting last month, department Commissioner Helen Hanks presented data showing that the average population fell from a high of 2,710 inmates in 2015 to 1,910 in August 2023. The number of parole board cases has also decreased, dropping from 2,311 in state fiscal year 2018 to 1,750 in fiscal year 2023.

Those declines are a result of the state’s embrace of drug courts, which allow people arrested for drug-related crimes to avoid prison time, as well as the 2018 bail reform law that resulted in fewer defendants held in jail before trial, Hanks said. 

The population changes have allowed the department to close a floor of the men’s state prison in Concord and reduce their minimum staffing requirements, according to a department document. 

But while the overall population is going down, parole violations that lead to re-incarceration are still relatively high. The number of revocation hearings – in which the parole board decides whether to order a return to prison because of a violation – have not meaningfully declined. Calendar year 2022 saw 561 hearings, compared to 607 in 2019 and 509 in 2015, according to department data. 

The number of annual prison admissions due to new convictions fell by more than 50 percent from 2016 to 2020. But the number of admissions due to parole violations fell by only 33 percent over the same time period – a key reason why New Hampshire has a higher proportion of parole violators behind bars than other states. 

Hanks says reducing recidivism, and with it parole revocations, is a goal of the department. Yet some lawmakers say the parole numbers raise concerns. 

“There is a real issue when it comes to the parole system and people who should be out on good behavior not being,” said Rep. Jonah Wheeler, a Peterborough Democrat serving on the study committee. “And when you’re out, having to go through so many hoops and red tape that it ends up being impossible for … someone who’s just gotten out of prison to maintain that healthy lifestyle.” 

Wheeler and others, including Hanks, say the scarcity of community-based mental health and substance use treatment options in New Hampshire has a major effect on recidivism rates for people on parole. Without those resources, people can fall into habits that get them arrested again, he said. 

“When you’re on parole, you’ve got a sharp eye on you at all times,” Wheeler said. “And so when you’re back in the same situation that got you into prison, that oftentimes can result in drug use and other things that will immediately lead you back where you started.”

Fixing that is a long-term goal that can’t be met with a single piece of legislation, they say.

The committee will meet through the fall and plans to take testimony from the New Hampshire Adult Parole Board; researchers from the Council of State Governments; the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire; the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; and others. Its next meeting is Sept. 11.

Whitley declined to speculate whether the committee will recommend broad legislative changes in its report, due in November. 

But in her testimony, Hanks noted that the 2010 reforms had a notable, if short-lived, impact on the prison system. 

“In 2010, the (prison) population was less,” Hanks said in her testimony. “Why did it go up? Because in 2010, we passed laws that were associated with Second Chance and then in 2011 we repealed those laws.”

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