Former N.H. House Speaker, AG oppose earlier parole legislation
Advocates said it would give inmates facing long sentences more incentive to change their behavior
By Kevin Landrigan
The New Hampshire Union Leader
CONCORD, N.H. — A House-passed bill that would allow some prison inmates to qualify for earlier parole and alter the state’s truth-in-sentencing law is opposed by Attorney General John Formella and former House Speaker Donna Sytek, who urged a Senate panel Tuesday to kill it.
“This would be the first one where you (an inmate) would be eligible for parole less than your minimum without the court being involved at all. I think that is a big mistake,” said Sytek, who served for a decade as a member and past chair of the New Hampshire Adult Parole Board.
The legislation (HB 588) from state Rep. Linda Harriott-Gathright, D- Nashua, attracted overwhelming bipartisan support to clear the House of Representatives, and advocates said it would give inmates facing long sentences more incentive to change their behavior while behind state prison walls.
All but four states have gotten rid of their truth-in-sentencing laws, she said.
“We all believe hope is a necessary factor in rehabilitation and that getting out of their sentence a little bit earlier will cause them to behave better,” said Rep. Terry Roy, R- Deerfield, who chairs the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
Under current law, state prison inmates generally have to serve at least two-thirds of their minimum sentence.
After incarceration, 150 extra days are added onto the minimum that get erased if they qualify for good behavior credits.
This legislation would permit inmates to seek parole after serving 65% of their minimum sentence.
This change would only apply to those sentenced to at least 7 1/2 years in prison, the minimum term for a Class A felony.
The intent of the bill is to apply these changes to newly incarcerated inmates. It would not apply to anyone convicted of felony rape or violent crimes against children under 18 years old.
To get out early, the inmate must not commit a serious offense while behind bars and complete all required court or Department of Corrections rehabilitation programs.
Myles Matteson, chief of the AG’s criminal justice bureau, said it was improper for the legislation to create different classes of inmates who could get out earlier than others.
He said the Department of Corrections has created incentives for inmates to shorten their release date by attending school and other programs.
State law further also permits inmates in state prison for at least six years to ask a judge to suspend their sentences for good cause once they come within one year of the two-thirds minimum term.
Prison population down in past decade
The AG’s office opposes giving the parole board authority that only judges have to approve an earlier release for an inmate based on good behavior, he said.
“Authorizing the parole board to move into a judge’s sentence is changing the bar ... you are mixing concepts and requirements,” Matteson said.
Joseph Lascaze with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, a former prison inmate, said he had to pay to take college courses to get time reduced from his sentence.
“The intent of this bill is to modify behavior. New Hampshire does not have any incentives to modify behavior,” Lascaze said.
More than 90% of state prison inmates are eventually released to the community.
“This legislation is going to bring about the true goal of the incarceration system, which is to have fewer victims,” Lascaze said.
Opponents noted the state prison population has dropped by nearly a third in the past decade from 2,900 in 2014 to about 2,000.
But Lascaze noted the number of inmates prior to truth-in-sentencing laws in New Hampshire was fewer than 300.
The New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also endorsed the measure.
Jay Mackey, director of operations with the Adult Parole Board, said as written the bill would apply to very few inmates.
Sytek said she was concerned this change would become the “nose under the tent” and lead to lawmakers seeking further weakening of the state’s sentencing laws in the future.
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