Lawmaker decries secrecy around parole records
The man whose wife was raped and strangled in Londonderry more than two decades ago by a man who was free on parole after serving time for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy at knifepoint supports making parole records public in New Hampshire, and one lawmaker is considering proposing that change.
State Rep. Laura Pantelakos, chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said she doesn't believe people on parole have finished paying their debt to society. Parole records should be public, she said, especially since much of the details in the records are discussed at parole hearings, which are open to the public.
"I was utterly amazed that they even let killers out," Pantelakos said, referring to a recent Sunday News article about 43 convicted murderers free on lifetime parole. The state would not provide information about their whereabouts or parole plans, citing an exemption under the right-to-know law for parole records.
David Goss believes it was the failure to monitor parolees that led to the Sept. 12, 1989, murder of his wife, Kimberly, when she was 29 years old by Daniel Vandebogart. Goss has moved on, but said it took a long time before he could even think about living his life without the woman he loved.
"It was tough," Goss said. "I was still in love when that all happened, in that love bubble. To have something like that happen really stinks."
Goss sued Manchester and the state claiming they were negligent for releasing Vandebogart on $200 personal recognizance bail when he was arrested for allegedly choking a Manchester woman three months before Kimberly's murder, unaware he was on parole.
According to the lawsuit, police checked Vandebogart's criminal record after the assault arrest, but didn't wait for the results that would have shown he was on parole from Montana after serving six years of a 20-year sentence for the knifepoint rape of a teenage boy and was being supervised by New Hampshire authorities.
Goss' life would have been very different if the state refused bail on the assault charge or at least revoked Vandebogart's parole after he was arrested in the assault, Goss said.
"She'd still be here, obviously," Goss said. "I often wonder what my life would have been if that never happened."
A jury found Vandebogart, now 50, guilty of first-degree murder for kidnapping Kimberly Goss from her Londonderry home, murdering her and burying her body beneath leaves behind her home. He is serving life in prison without chance for parole.
"It's a shame," Goss said of the state's position that parole records are confidential. "Because the loopholes and lax supervision in the parole system led to my wife's tragedy." Manchester settled with Goss for $100,000, but the state Supreme Court threw out his lawsuit against the state.
Goss continued his fight to reform the system, which led to passage of the Kimberly Goss Act in 1993, to make it harder for people on parole for violent crimes to obtain bail if arrested for a similar crime.
Knowing where parolees live and what is required of them would help people to protect themselves and allow the public to keep an eye out for suspicious activity, Goss said. Others insist that would infringe on their right to privacy.
Parole Board Chairman Donna Sytek said she hasn't decided whether more parole information should be public. Jim Moir of Concord, a veteran defense attorney, believes parole record details should remain confidential.
"A person who has met the requirements for parole has complied with all the requirements set by courts and prison to be released to the community," Moir said. "They have paid their to debt to society, and while many go on to be supervised, they should be allowed to go on with their lives."
If parolees get in trouble, they are sent back before the parole board, Moir said, adding those hearings are public even though parole records are not.
On the advice of the Attorney General's Office, the Department of Corrections denied a recent Sunday News request to detail where 43 convicted murderers who are free on lifetime parole are living or provide any details of their parole plan and responsibilities.
The department did provide their names, crime, date of entry into state prison, parole date and whether or not they had violated parole. About a quarter of them had violated parole, but the state wouldn't say how or what happened as a result.
Many of those murderers were sentenced before truth-in-sentencing passed in the early 1980s, which required state inmates serve at least their minimum sentences. Or they were sentenced in a plea bargain to avoid mandatory life sentences, which is still possible under the law.
Assistant Attorney General Lynmarie Cusack said in a letter to the newspaper: "New Hampshire law requires that parolee information including addresses, work history, and general information relating to the parolee be kept confidential."
Cusack cited an administrative rule that says "in order to protect parolees from injurious publicity, parole records shall be kept confidential." Parole records are exempt from the right-to-know law, she said. Cusack also noted that the state Supreme Court has held that all people have a privacy interest in being able to "retreat to the seclusion of one's home and avoid enforced disclosure of one's address."
Pantelakos said convicted criminals should expect to lose rights. "Everything else about their lives when they go to jail is public," Pantelakos said.
Pantelakos said she plans to discuss the matter with other committee members to see whether a change in the law would be appropriate.
"I believe it's another deterrent to people who commit a crime if they know their whole life will be an open book. Sex offender details are plastered all over the computer," Pantelakos said.
One major problem is continued cuts to the Department of Corrections' budget, she said.
The constitution requires the state rehabilitate prisoners. "The state is not doing its job," Pantelakos said.
According to Jeffrey Lyons, Department of Corrections spokesman, there are 1,914 inmates on parole and 3,893 on probation with about 64 parole/probation officers supervising them.
Lyons said the department would take no position on possibly changing the law to make parole records public.
Rockingham County Attorney Jim Reams said the Kimberly Goss Act was rarely invoked in the past because parolees who were arrested for new crimes were returned to state prison for a revocation hearing, so bail wasn't an issue. Reams said that policy changed a few years ago, and the Department of Corrections doesn't return parolees to state prison now until they are convicted of the new crime.
In the meantime, they are held before trial at county jails, where they could potentially seek bail, and the cost to incarcerate them is passed on to the county.
"Now, because of a change in the policy at DOC that they do not take them back until conviction, we may start to hear more about that kind of statute," Reams said of the Kimberly Goss Act, which is still on the books.
"It is indefensible that you can sit in a parole hearing and learn all the information, but outside of the hearing you can't get a hold of the records. The public does have a right to know," Reams said.
The parolees have already shown themselves to be a threat, Reams said, adding 95 percent of all state prison inmates will be released at some point.
"They are getting out more frequently and quicker than before," Reams said. "The whole theory is to rehabilitate them. Why wouldn't the public have the right to know the rehabilitation plan?"
Reams said most don't have a good track record on parole. "Fifty percent of them fail," he said.
Goss thinks the public keeping an eye on parolees could be helpful to law enforcement, and maybe save lives.
"It would be an added tool for them, to help them to do their job," Goss said.