CONCORD, N.H. — Senate Bill 500 will significantly affect the New Hampshire parole system and the prison system. If enacted, it will effectively strip the parole board of critical discretionary powers. This bill deserves more careful study and consideration than it has received. It is being rushed through the Legislature as a panacea for prison crowding and recidivism. In fact, it is neither.
The discretionary parole system has two core principles.
First, inmates must earn parole through program participation and acceptable conduct. This motivates inmates to take part in rehabilitation and to obey prison rules. Inmates who do not participate in programs or who violate the rules are not granted parole.
SB 500 mandates parole of all non-violent offenders who have served 120 percent of their minimum sentences. Inmates who refuse programs or violate prison rules will nonetheless be released. Parole will no longer be a privilege, but a right. This sends the wrong message to prisoners and reduces the parole board to a hollow body whose hands are tied by the law.
Undermining deterrence The second principle of discretionary parole is deterrence. Inmates who earn parole are released with knowing that if they violate their conditions they face return to prison for up to the remainder of their sentences. SB 500 all but eliminates the deterrent value of parole.
Under SB 500 parole violators can be returned to prison for not more than 90 days, regardless of the seriousness of the violation. I have worked with parole violators for over 17 years and can assure you that for many of these people the threat of 90 days in prison is no threat at all. As they often tell me, "I can do that much time standing on my head."
This bill also has the potential to disrupt order and discipline within our prison system. If inmates know that they will be released, regardless of their behavior, what motivation will they have to obey the rules of the institution? This bill all but guarantees that many inmates will leave the prison without treatment for problems that contribute to their criminal behavior. If they know they will be automatically released they will have no motivation to complete programs.
In addition, consider the supervision problems that this bill will create for our parole officers. Parolees will know that whatever they do, they face only 90 days behind bars. This is not a deterrent for people who have spent years in prison.
Wrong message There are other matters to consider. Consider the paroled sex offender who is found with pornography, or is on the internet, or is cultivating a relationship with a child. Today, when this person is returned for such a violation of parole he will normally not be considered for release until completion of at least six months of intensive therapy. If SB 500 is enacted, the person will be released without any treatment.
Again, is this the message we should be sending to the offender population?
I also must address some misconceptions that exist regarding parole violations. I have heard members of the Legislature suggest that we return parolees to prison for taking one drink or using drugs one time. This is completely false.
The parole board has for years worked to develop and implement alternatives to incarceration. If a parolee comes back to prison for drug or alcohol use, we have exhausted all community alternatives, and the arrest is necessary for public safety.
SB 500 states that parole violators returned to prison will receive evidence-based treatment during their incarceration. This treatment has not been identified nor have resources been made available.
Provisions of SB 500 are similar to those enacted in other states with one critical exception: These states first appropriated money for institutional and community treatment.
Given our current fiscal dilemma, is it reasonable to assume that we will find money for these critical programs?
Legislation of this significance merits a very careful examination of the potential consequences as well as the estimated benefits. As written, this bill replaces parole board discretion with mandated decisions that clearly are not in the best interest of public safety.