A spokesman for Gov. Maggie Hassan says she supports a county attorney’s appeal against the early jail release of fired Manchester police detective Stephen Coco.
Hassan wants to review the law that gave New Hampshire jail administrators flexibility to let inmates go before completing jail time, said a statement.
“The governor believes it is appropriate that the county attorney has appealed the superintendent’s decision in this case,” said Press Secretary William Hinkle in a statement on Tuesday. “Now that the law has been in place for a year, Governor Hassan thinks it is appropriate to review how the counties are using it.”
Coco plead guilty in Hillsborough County Superior Court North to felony hit and run and was sentenced to a year in jail. Coco’s charge stemmed from a 2013 incident where he struck two Bedford teenagers in an undercover police SUV and then drove off. He later said he was distracted and did not know he hit the teens.
Both teenager were hospitalized with broken and bones and internal bleeding. The two have since recovered.
Coco has been out of jail since June 5. Reports indicate he is living at home in Bedford with his family and is working, but has a tight curfew.
Sullivan County Attorney Marc Hathaway, who originally prosecuted the case, objected to Coco’s early release. At a hearing Monday morning, Hathaway’s objection was “taken under advisement” by Judge Gillian Abramson. However, Coco got the suspended sentence and two years probation at the advisement of Hillsborough County Corrections Superintendent David Dionne.
Dionne said if prosecutors want stiffer sentences, with state supervision: “Do that in the courtroom.”
Dionne said everyone concerned knew at the time of sentencing that Stephen Coco could be out on the 15th day after his sentencing in March.
Dionne said Coco has had four random drug tests and four random drop-in visits. Coco reports in once a week. “He does not need an anklet,” said Dionne.
If Coco, or any other prisoner on one of the release programs violates conditions, it’s back to jail, said the jail superintendent.
“I do fair, firm and consistent,” said Dionne, who said if he treated Coco unfairly, Coco could sue him.
Dionne said before the sentencing law was modified, and the change took effect Sept. 22, 2013, one of the biggest problems with work release was that a judge had to issue the order.
“We would have to petition the court,” said Dionne, and that could take months, which jeopardized the jobs of prisoners, or Social Security benefits and medications for those with mental health problems.
He said that’s why he and other superintendents testified before the Legislature, seeking to have the sentencing law adjusted. to let the superintendents make the decision independently.
“We needed some kind of authority,” he said. “We’re the ones who know the inmates. . .their history.” He said the superintendents are best qualified to evaluate the prisoners and make the decisions about home confinement, day reporting and work release.
He said he’s been making those decisions on a regular basis since the change in the statute and the case of Coco is the first one that has prompted public inquiry. He said there is another man, who injured a three-year-old, in the same kind of situation, who is on the same release program and nobody has questioned why he is on day report status.
Dionne’s ability to review and reduce Coco’s sentence is permitted by an ammendment to House Bill 224, which was passed by the state House and Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Hassan in 2013. The ammendment allows correctional superintendents to reduce inmate sentences to “obtain gainful employment, perform uncompensated public service, or serve the sentence under home confinement.”
However, sponsors of HB 224 are split on whether Coco should have been released after serving less than a quarter of his original sentence.
House Majority Leader Stephen Shurtleff, D-Concord, said he agrees with Dionne’s decision to release Coco and said the decision fell in line with the original intention of HB 224.
“I think this worked out the way the bill intended it to,” said Shurtleff. “It’s obviously a sad subject, but I think justice was served.”
Shurtleff, a retired U.S. Marshal, said he did not believe Coco’s former role as a police officer played any role in his reduced sentence.
“There’s no one that is looked at with more disfavor when commiting a crime than law enforcement because it’s not only their reputation but its the reputation of who serves,” said Shurtleff.
State Rep. Robert Fesh, R-Derry, disagreed with Shurtleff.
“If he got a year, he shouldn’t be out in two months,” said Fesh.
Fesh said, from his recollection, the bill was intended to reduce a sentence if both the county attorney and the judge gave their okay.
“I don’t think this was the intention of the bill, from what I can recall,” said Fesh.
State Rep. Gene Charron, R-Chester, cites section three of HB 224, which states “at any time during the sentence the superintendent deems such a release to be conducive to the person’s rehabilitation, the court and the prosecutor shall be notified and, at the request of the prosecutor, a hearing may be scheduled.”
Charron, a former Rockingham County superintendent, said from what he’s reading in the paper and seeing on television, a hearing did not occur when Hathaway objected to the reduced sentence.
Rep. Charron said his intention with HB 224 was to have everyone involved in the original trial or case involved in any type of reduced or elimination of a sentence. For Charron, that means everyone from defense and prosecution to victims and their families.
“That was my personal interpretation of the bill,” said Charron. “From what I’m seeing, I don’t know if that happened.”
Former House Speaker Donna Sytek, who is currently on the state parole board, was a strong backer of truth in sentencing during her years in the Legislature.
But she said Tuesday: “Truth in sentencing doesn’t apply to the county (sentences).” Sytek said the expectation is that when a person is sentenced to a year, they would serve at least eight months.
In the state system, she said, it takes 90 days before a prisoner is eligible for work release or home confinement with an ankle bracelet and a judge has to sign off on the modification.
Attorney General Joseph Foster said: “Our office opposed it (the modification) initially, but now there’s a check.” Foster was referring to the provision that requires a jail superintendent to notify the prosecutor, who can request a court hearing if the prosecutor objects to the sentence modification.
That’s what Sullivan County Attorney Hathaway did in Coco’s case and Judge Abramson held a hearing Monday and took the reclassifcation under advisement.
The change has only been in effect since September 2013 and Foster said: “We don’t know what’s happened in other arenas. We may want to look into that. How’s it working?”