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Senate-passed bail reform initiative clears NH House

By Dave Solomon
State House Bureau

April 19. 2018 11:44PM

CONCORD — A Senate-passed bill to reform the bail system in New Hampshire cleared the House in a voice vote on Thursday, despite opposition from law enforcement.

SB 556, which passed the Senate in a voice vote on March 8, would establish new criteria for judges to consider in granting the release of defendants before trial.

Judges would be required to take income and ability to pay into consideration when setting bail for low-level offenses. Low-level offenders, charged with non-violent crimes, with no evidence that they are a risk of not showing up at trial, would qualify for personal recognizance bail.

The House amended the Senate bill, so the two chambers will have to resolve their differences before it can head to the desk of Gov. Chris Sununu.

“Gov. Sununu is monitoring the bill and continues to have some concerns,” said Sununu's spokesman Ben Vihstadt.

The bill is designed to prevent people from being jailed before conviction for no reason other than inability to pay bail.

“In some cases, people feel it is better to plead guilty to a crime they did not commit than to use a bail bond company or stay in jail while awaiting trial,” according to Rep. Kate Murray, D-New Castle. “Our system of justice is supposed to be based on incarcerating those found guilty of a crime, not keeping in jail those who are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty because of their lack of financial resources.”

The bill also streamlines the process for obtaining an annulment for violation-level offenses or low-level misdemeanors.

Tuftonboro Police Chief Andrew Shagoury, who also serves as president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, said in public hearings the chiefs he represents support the concept of bail reform, but are concerned about what he called “a major shift in policy.”

“We shouldn’t be running debtors’ prisons, but we need accountability in the system,” he said.

New Hampshire is partnering with other states in a national campaign to reform a bail system that critics say discriminates against the poor and working class, fails to protect public safety and strains public resources.

Judge Tina Nadeau, chief justice of the Superior Court, kicked off the campaign at the State House on March 19, announcing a partnership with the national Pretrial Justice Institute and its “3 Days Count” campaign.

The name is derived from studies that show three days in jail is all it takes to turn someone’s life upside down.

“The ultimate goal is to make sure that dangerous people and the people with the highest risk of flight are the people being detained, and not people who simply can’t afford to post bail,” said Nadeau.

SB 566 is not directly tied to the “3 Days Count” campaign, but law enforcement officials fear that the combination of the two will result in dangerous changes to bail procedures.

The Association of Police Chiefs initially supported SB 566, but withdrew that support after the “3 Days Count” initiative was announced.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the conservative Americans for Prosperity both applauded the House vote.

“The passage of SB 556 on a voice vote demonstrates the strong bipartisan support for bail reform and commitment to ensuring that people are not held in jail pretrial simply because they cannot afford $100 bail,” said Jeanne Hruska, policy director for the ACLU-NH.

Greg Moore, AFP-NH state director, said passage of the bill would be a win for taxpayers as well, given the high cost of incarceration, estimated at about $3,200 a month per person.

“Reforming our bail laws so that those who have not been convicted of a crime aren’t forced to sit behind bars simply because they are unable to pay is a victory not only for those who could lose their job, their car and their home because they can’t make bail; it’s also a win for property taxpayers who won’t have to pay to jail these individuals,” he said.

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