From popular bill to unpopular law
If you study the lessons of “Schoolhouse Rock,” as I strongly recommend we all do, you will surely remember how a bill becomes a law. Submission, hearings, amendments, back and forth between the chambers, and signed or vetoed by the executive.Alas, 1980s Saturday morning television only gets us so far. I have yet to see a cartoon that explains how a broad bipartisan group of New Hampshire lawmakers was able to pass such a flawed piece of legislation as Senate Bill 500, our state’s new mandatory parole law, without knowing what the law they were passing would actually do.SB 500 was based on the work of the Council of State Governments Justice Center. It had the early support of Senate President Sylvia Larsen, House Speaker Terie Norelli, Gov. John Lynch, Chief Justice John Broderick and Attorney General Michael Delaney. Key Republican supporters included Sens. Peter Bragdon of Milford and Bob Letourneau of Derry, as well as Rep. Neal Kurk, of Weare.With such political clout behind the measure, the wheels were greased for swift and noncontroversial passage. Unfortunately, while members of both parties were patting themselves on the back, no one was left to ask tough questions about the bill’s impact on New Hampshire.SB 500 included a number of noncontroversial provisions, such as earlier release of nonviolent inmates, increased supervision of paroled prisoners, and new treatment programs inside and outside prison walls. These were the provisions that supporters stressed as the bill made its way through the legislative process.What they ignored was a much broader provision that mandated all inmates, regardless of their crime, be given parole at least nine months before the end of their sentences. This controversial language was in the bill from the beginning, but you had to read the bill to find that out.There’s a strong case to be made for releasing even the most violent inmates before they “max out” their sentences. The argument being made today is that it’s better to let out murderers and rapists while we can still exert some control over them than to wait until their sentence is complete and they just walk away.But SB 500 supporters misled their colleagues about the bill, claiming that its effect was limited to nonviolent criminals. Lynch highlighted the bill’s provisions on nonviolent inmates when he signed it, but he didn’t say a word about the other criminals who would be leaving prison early.The other argument being pushed for mandatory parole is that New Hampshire is following the example set by other states, such as Texas and Kansas.But if anyone had bothered to check, neither Kansas nor Texas mandate parole for violent inmates. Both states still rely heavily on incentives for prisoners to earn parole. And both preserve the independence and judgment of their states’ parole boards.Removing this discretion removes the incentive for criminals to rehabilitate themselves and undermines a parole board’s authority. And while early release and supervision may be a great idea for the prison population as a whole, that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for the worst of the worst inmates in New Hampshire prisons.The Council of State Governments based its recommendations on the experience of 13 other states. Of those, only Connecticut mandates early release for all inmates. Four states have adopted some of the council’s recommendations, but not mandatory parole. And eight states haven’t even approved the program yet.Looking back, it’s easy to see how so many people were so surprised when the New Hampshire Adult Parole Board starting releasing sex offenders in September.Blame the Council of State Governments for basing its recommendation on bad data. Blame supporters willing to soft-pedal the real impact of SB 500. Or blame lawmakers and reporters willing to accept a bipartisan deal rather than read the bill for themselves.No matter what, let’s make sure we take a closer look at the Legislature’s next great idea before it becomes a bad law.Grant Bosse is lead investigator for the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in Concord.