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Another View -- Mark Holden, Devon Chaffee, and Christine Leonard : We cannot 'live free or die' without meaningful criminal justice reform

Mark Holden, Devon Chaffee, and Christine Leonard
April 07. 2015 9:57PM

FOR NONVIOLENT offenders facing years, decades or even life in prison, “live free or die” takes on a whole different meaning.

New Hampshire has a low and stable crime rate, but its prison population is a different story. Between 1999 and 2009, the prison population increased 22 percent, and annual state spending on corrections doubled to more than $100 million. This reflects disturbing trends nationwide.

As home to the first-in-the-nation primary, New Hampshire will play a critical role in shaping the national debate over criminal justice reform. Pressing presidential candidates on the issues can help make the dream of a “second chance” a bipartisan reality.

New Hampshire is poised to lead on this debate, which is already off to a strong start with unprecedented bipartisan support.

Following an administration-wide commitment to reform sentencing guidelines for nonviolent drug offenders, President Obama last week commuted prison time for 22 people convicted of federal drug crimes, many of whom faced decades to life behind bars. These individuals are among thousands who have submitted clemency petitions, and who would likely have received shorter sentences for their offenses if they had been sentenced under today’s laws.

This is welcome news and builds on the larger bipartisan effort already afoot. Last month, Washington saw an unusual coming together of political voices from the left and right at the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform hosted by “strange bedfellows” Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Donna Brazile and Pat Nolan. The summit underscored that this is not a conservative or liberal issue, or a rich or poor issue (although the disadvantaged are the most negatively impacted by the abuses in our system).

Panelists discussed reforms to civil forfeiture, sentencing laws, indigent defense, criminal code cleanup, removing legal barriers to reentry and reintegration into society, and establishing intent requirements in all laws that carry criminal penalties. The goal of the summit, and of reform efforts more broadly, is to enhance public safety, ensure the individual rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, and to ensure that everyone involved with the system — the accused, the victims, the imprisoned, law enforcement and the families of all involved — are treated with dignity and respect.

This holistic approach to reform is the right one. Our experiences have taught us that it’s not enough to work on just one aspect of the criminal justice system, since each area affects the entire system. Similarly, we must be driving parallel reform efforts at the state and federal levels to effectively address the many cracks in the system.

Legislators must resist the temptation to criminalize activities to regulate Americans’ personal, social and business practices that aren’t criminal in nature, and similarly, to punish with overly harsh penalties. Criminal laws should not impose liability if the accused did not knowingly and willfully intend to commit the bad act. We do not end up enhancing public safety when everything is a crime and punishments are too harsh. We are hopeful that by reforming the justice system, the relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve will improve.

The road to reform will not be easy, but states like New Hampshire are poised to elevate the issue with presidential hopefuls, as well as set an example for other states.On the issue of civil forfeiture — in which law enforcement can seize someone’s personal property if they suspect it’s been involved in a crime, without even charging them — legislative victories have been met with executive resistance in states like Wyoming (where a reform bill was vetoed) and New Mexico (where the legislature just put a unanimous and bipartisan stamp of approval on reform legislation).

In New Hampshire, House Bill 636 would eliminate civil forfeiture and replace it with criminal forfeiture. This change would fix the current forfeiture rules that allow the authorities to seize and keep money and property from people without ever pursuing criminal charges.

Our Bill of Rights recognizes and guards each individual’s dignity. The Coalition for Public Safety, which includes Laura and John Arnold, the MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation and Koch Industries, are working across the political spectrum to bring about positive change in our criminal justice system and to defend every individual’s dignity. It’s imperative that every American join in this effort, and as we gear up for the next election cycle New Hampshire can help make that a reality.

Mark Holden is general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries, Inc. Devon Chaffee is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire. Christine Leonard is executive director of the Coalition for Public Safety, which advocates reform of the criminal justice system.

Crime, law and justice Social issues State Government Guest Commentary

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