Inmates say consecutive sentences unlawful

Twenty State Prison inmates are suing the state over the duration of their sentences, and there’s a chance they may win.

The inmates claim that prosecutors illegally break single crimes into several charges involving consecutive sentences to worsen the punishment for defendants. Judges have imposed these disputed consecutive terms for more than 30 years.

The state Supreme Court has accepted almost identical appeals from eight superior courts, and it plans to act on them together. If the state loses, the plaintiffs think hundreds of prisoners will have been wrongly jailed, some for decades.

Attorney Richard Lehmann, former lawyer for the state Senate, represents inmate Kenneth Violette.

“When they amended the criminal code they never authorized judges to impose these consecutive sentences,” Lehmann said. “If the law doesn’t allow it, the judges can’t do it. If a guy robs a bank, it just makes sense to charge him with a single armed robbery instead of 20 counts of reckless conduct against 20 people. They shouldn’t be able to divide a single sexual assault into 20 felonies either.”

Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, chairs the House Judiciary Committee and warns that the inmates have a good case.

“I believe that statute was repealed,” Welch said. “I’ve read the criminal code a few times, it’s our bible. If that’s the way the judicial branch interprets the law, they ought to take a second look at it. It may account for the huge growth in prison population. “

Rep. John Robinson, D-Londonderry, said judges are obliged to follow the rules. He agreed one bank heist should never become 20 counts of endangerment.

“But if you blow the bank up and kill 20 people, that should be 20 counts of murder,” Robinson said. “We should be fair while making sure the sentences serve the societal purposes of punishment and deterrence.”

Rep. Gene Charron, R-Chester, retired a couple of years ago as superintendent of the Rockingham County jail. He said consecutive sentences are common. “We discovered that when we researched the Child Predator Act,” Charron said. “It will be interesting if they poke a hole in the practice. It doesn’t seem possible a thing of this magnitude could go 30 years without somebody picking up on it. I’ve seen some pretty unique legal challenges by inmates, but nothing like this.”

Plaintiff Marc Estes said in a phone interview he could easily name a hundred men in the same situation as he.

“The outcome of one will decide all the others,” he said.

But Rep. John Tholl, R-Dalton, has been in law enforcement for four decades and serves. He thinks the number of inmates being held under such circumstances is small.

“From my personal experience, it doesn’t happen as often as they think,” Tholl said. “I doubt if many of those consecutive sentences are really for a single crime. If someone breaks into six homes, that’s six charges.”

Inmate Steven Roy worked on the appeals, though he’s serving life without parole for murder.

“My only concern is that the judicial assumption of un-granted powers cease, and the good men who have suffered from these abuses get the sentences they were supposed to get,” Roy said in a letter to Golden Dome News. “The pendulum has too long been on the side of ridiculously excessive sentences.”

Lead plaintiff Randy Duquette said in his brief that a new criminal code in 1973 repealed the law permitting consecutive sentences. Two years later, lawmakers allowed them again, but only in rare cases, such as committing a new crime while incarcerated.

“Courts began imposing consecutive sentences, sparingly at first, and with increasing frequency over time,” Duquette said. “This newfound power helped fuel a massive expansion of the state’s prison population and drastically altered the legal climate of the state.”

Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, who serves on the House Criminal Justice Committee, said nobody can find the law to support what the courts have been doing.

“Good for the inmates,” she said of the lawsuit. “Those terms are bad for taxpayers and inmates. Eighty-five percent of them are in for drug and alcohol issues, and we don’t have the treatment programs for that. It sets them up to fail.”

Rep. Betsey Patten, R-Moultonborough, said if the inmates win, she’d consider changing the law. But Rep. Martha McLeod, D-Franconia, said the prisoners deserve their freedom if they win.

“They would have served their time.” – CHRIS DORNIN/GOLDEN DOME NEWS

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