The Story of SB 500
Before it became an election season issue for New Hampshire, Senate Bill 500 was hailed by Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike as an innovation in criminal justice. It would deal with the state’s problem of recidivism, fueled largely by parole and probation violations. It would reduce incarceration rates. It would improve public safety and save money along the way.
Signed into law on July 1 by Gov. John Lynch, the bill—and the people who stand behind it—have come under fire in the recent weeks of heated campaigning before next week’s mid-term elections.
This week, Front Door Politics digs into the story of SB 500 to separate the truth from the campaign “mud” and figure out what it really means for New Hampshire.
We start today with the legislation’s background to get anyone up to speed who didn’t follow the genesis of the law last year. (The background is what makes today’s controversy about SB 500 so surprising.) We’ll continue our weeklong series with fact-checking of campaign ads and national context from other states that have implemented similar measures. We’ll also talk with the candidates, and get citizen perspectives, too.
Now, the background:
Changing parole guidelines, as Senate Bill 500 does, and shifting more attention and money to community supervision of inmates started with this finding: Though New Hampshire has had a relatively low rate and stable rate of violent crime over the past decade, the state’s prisoner population has increased 31 percent, recidivism rates are at 57 percent and corrections costs have doubled from $52 million to $104 million.
As reported last year by Front Door Politics, SB 500 came into being after an eight-month study process that included the creation of “a Justice Reinvestment Leadership Team, including Attorney General Michael Delaney, Chief Justice John Broderick Jr., corrections officials and lawmakers.” This group got extensive research from the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, a nonpartisan forum for all three branches of state-level government. The research included examples of corrections reform in other states, including Texas, Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island.
In practice, SB 500 created new parole and probation guidelines that vary depending on the nature of a crime, an inmate’s history of recidivism, and his or her behavior in prison. It’s important to notice the difference between “may” (being optional) and “shall” (being mandated) in how these guidelines are to be followed. The three categories of protocol are below, and Front Door Politics will continue to explain what this legal-speak means in our reporting this week.
(a) A prisoner may be released on parole upon the expiration of the minimum term of his or her sentence.
(b) A prisoner convicted of a nonviolent offense shall be released on parole upon serving 120 percent of the minimum term of his or her sentence.
(c) All prisoners who have not been previously paroled, or who were recommitted to prison more than one year prior to the expiration of the maximum term of his or her sentence, shall be released on parole at least 9 months prior to the expiration of the maximum term of his or her sentence. This provision shall not apply to any prisoner who is the subject of a pending petition for civil commitment pursuant to RSA 135-E [this means involuntary commitment of sexually violent predators]. In the event that the prisoner is not civilly committed, he or she shall be released on parole for the remainder of his or her sentence.
It is section C, above, that seems to have sparked political controversy. The campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate John Stephen and at least three political action groups have criticized SB 500 for endangering public safety by mandating early release of eligible inmates, particularly of sex offenders.
The bill’s supporters maintain the merits of the supervision that goes along with that early release. This is where SB 500’s “active supervision” standards for parole and probation come in:
II. Any person placed on probation for a misdemeanor shall be subject to active supervision for up to the first 9 months and thereafter be placed on administrative supervision unless the probationer has been designated high risk or has been adjudicated by the court for a violation of the conditions of probation during the first 9 months under supervision.
III. Any person placed on probation for a felony shall be subject to active supervision for up to the first 12 months and thereafter be placed on administrative supervision unless the probationer has been designated high risk or has been adjudicated by the court for a violation of the conditions of probation during the first 12 months under supervision.
IV. Any person placed on parole for a felony shall be subject to active supervision for up to the first 18 months and thereafter be placed on administrative supervision unless the parolee has been designated high risk or has violated the conditions of parole during the first 18 months under supervision.
On Sept. 30, Senate President Sylvia Larsen (D-Concord) said, “It is critically important to provide a high level of supervision for our worst offenders when they are released back into the community. Senate Bill 500 ensures those offenders get at least nine months of supervision. Under the present system, we cannot track most offenders’ whereabouts after their prison sentence is up.”
The bill’s supporters say that by releasing inmates to supervision before their maximum term is served, the state can save money on incarceration and in turn “reinvest” that into community-based treatment programs, which can help make the transition from prison to society more successful.
“The lack of community treatment options is reflected in our excessive recidivism rate,” Larsen said.
The state parole board opposed SB 500’s changes, saying they decreased the board’s case-by-case flexibility. But the process by which the bill was created was hailed at the time by co-sponsors such as Sen. Peter Bragdon (R-Milford). He said in March before voting for the final bill, “It was a great commitment, bipartisan, and I think it’s resulted in a great bill and I’d just like to thank them for their time.”
Bragdon has since called of repeal of at one least one of the bill’s measures—the mandatory release into active supervision of all prisoners nine months before their sentence maximum has been reached.
>> If you’re concerned by or confused about what SB 500 might mean for you, let us know. We’ll do our best to address your questions in our SB 500 series this week, and in our continued coverage of justice issues in New Hampshire.
This Daily Update was written by Michael McCord, with contributions from Hilary Niles.