by Amanda Pirani, New Hampshire Bulletin
June 23, 2023
In 2017, more than half of those incarcerated in New Hampshire’s prisons were there because of a violation of probation or parole. That’s according to the most recent data from the Council of Governments, which showed that prison admissions in the Granite State for supervision violations were 15 percent above the national average.
The state’s recidivism rate has garnered new interest with the revival of the Justice Reinvestment initiative last year and the increasing cost of incarceration. According to the state Department of Corrections, the annual cost of incarcerating a person is $54,386, while the annual cost of supervising someone through parole and probation is $603.
A committee of New Hampshire lawmakers will be taking a closer look at parole violations this summer, aiming to improve outcomes for those under supervision. Signed by Gov. Chris Sununu earlier this month, Senate Bill 251 established a legislative committee in response to the Council of Governments study, which was highlighted by its sponsors.
“Probation and parole are designed to lower prison populations and then help people succeed in the community. However, there’s some new data that is suggesting it may have the opposite effect,” said Hopkinton Democratic Sen. Becky Whitley during a public hearing on SB 251 in February.
Advocates have emphasized that a quarter of violations are considered technical, rather than the result of a new crime, according to national data.
“So that can be anything from having a beer bottle in your trash can to being out past curfew,” Joseph Lascaze, Smart Justice Campaign manager at the ACLU of New Hampshire, said in an interview.
Lascaze has first hand experience with the criminal justice system after previously serving a sentence at the Department of Corrections, and began advocating for residents’ issues while incarcerated. He has worked as a mentor for parolees, and recently focused his efforts on legislative reform to the state’s parole system.
‘Prison is the only tool that they have’
While supporters of SB 251 have stressed that the state’s parole system should be reexamined, others feel it’s misunderstood.
Roger Phillips, chair of the New Hampshire Adult Parole Board and a Concord attorney, suggested that the Council of Governments data driving the parole study committee was not presented with enough context.
He emphasized that parolees are not often brought to the parole board upon first technical offense. According to Phillips, the parole officer has discretion and is expected to sanction the resident through other measures before sending them back to the board to be reincarcerated.
“For every single warrant that is issued, we require that alternative sanctions are used first,” he said.
As part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a national effort in 2010 to reduce recidivism and criminal justice spending, an “intermediate sanction” was made available to New Hampshire parole officers. The sanction allows a parole officer to place parolees in a half-way house for one week. According to the Department of Corrections’ monthly reports from Feb. 2022 to Feb. 2023, the sanction was never utilized.
The adult parole board, led by Phillips, is the independent agency that manages the granting of parole and administration of parole sanctions. Board members report to and are appointed directly by the governor, with approval from the Executive Council.
The board is made up of seven members: two attorneys, one person with law enforcement or corrections experience, one with criminal justice experience, and one member of the public. The structure of the parole board is fairly new, and was reformed in 2021 after a 2019 audit found evidence of significant disorganization.
The audit report detailed a lack of formal rules, policies, and procedures to guide decisions and negligence regarding the board’s responsibilities. It found that the board was “overwhelmed” by its workload and “inconsistent” in its application of decision criteria.
It also found that parole officers inconsistently applied alternative sanctions before bringing parolees before the board, with some parole officers being much quicker to report a violation to the board than others.
Currently, the board makes no distinction between the substantive violations, which are the result of a new criminal charge, and technical violations. A parolee can be incarcerated for a range of parole violations, from repeatedly failing to meet curfew, to robbery, for example.
When an individual is found by their parole officer to have violated their parole, the parolee is arrested and incarcerated. Then, a hearing is scheduled before a three-member parole board panel. The panel can override the parole officer, and immediately release the individual, or uphold the violation.
In that case, members determine for how long the parolee will be incarcerated. The minimum setback, or time in prison, is 90 days, unless specific qualifying criteria is met for a lesser setback.
This is a process Lascaze would like to see changed.
“I believe that our recidivism rate amongst releases is so high because [prison] is the only tool that they have,” he said. “If you only have a hammer in your toolbox, everything becomes a nail to you.”
‘Correction, not punishment’
For Phillips, the state’s 60 percent recidivism statistic speaks to the nature of the incarceration system and the struggle of addiction, rather than the effects of parole policy.
“Sometimes people try, six or seven times, and go through years of different facilities, and all of a sudden they catch on,” he said.
He suggested that many violations are rooted in mental illness and substance abuse.
“If you look at other states and what they’re able to do, they have a bunch of treatment facilities for mental health or substance abuse,” he said. “To me, those are two major differences.”
Data from the Council of Governments found that more than half of those incarcerated in New Hampshire’s prisons have an opioid abuse disorder in 2019, and more than half of parole violations were related to substance abuse in 2020.
In the New Hampshire Department of Corrections’ 2021 annual report, Commissioner Helen Hanks wrote that recidivism via parole violations “continues to be a key driver to incarceration.”
Lascaze said that recidivism shouldn’t be the norm for those navigating the system, especially in the case of addiction. He believes more community-based alternatives to incarceration are needed when addressing parole violations.
“Let’s say a person is staying out past the curfew, repeatedly… you don’t need to send the person back to the prison for that,” he said. “You could be like well, you know what, we’re gonna use this ankle bracelet.”
He pointed to a number of ways in which incarceration upon parole violation might cause more harm. Parolees are at a disadvantage in seeking housing and employment, both of which are often lost with reincarceration. Their sudden change in circumstance also impacts community members dependent on the parolee, such as family members and employers.
“I think that’s a collateral harm that happens when we are taking people from the community who have started to plant themselves and tried to start rebuilding their lives,” Lascaze said.
Parolees should be held accountable, he said, but the system should focus more on correction, than punishment.
“We’re not saying in any shape or form that there shouldn’t be accountability among parolees in their behavior,” he said. “You do sign a piece of paper when you leave.”
Lascaze also argued that the parole board and parole officers often have too much discretion, and noted board members do not have to follow the recommendations of parole officers.
“One of the overarching problems is that there is just no uniform system of how these parole violations are handled,” said Lascaze.
“I’m really hoping that we take a look at the reasons why people are being sent back to prison,” he continued. “I would like the state to look to really address the broad discretion that is in place for violations and really think… is this what we want?”
Phillips acknowledged that in other states, parole systems function differently. He is open to any changes the study committee might recommend.
“If we can improve our process, I’m fine with that,” he said.
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