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Bail reform bill headed for governor's desk

By Dave Solomon
State House Bureau

May 15. 2018 8:55PM

CONCORD — House and Senate negotiators have agreed on a bail reform bill that is now likely to clear both chambers, despite the unanimous opposition of county attorneys.

Gov. Chris Sununu has said he has concerns about the bill, but has not come down firmly on one side or the other.

If Senate Bill 556 (The Criminal Justice Reform and Economic Fairness Act of 2018) is signed into law, 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 had to resolve their differences in conference committee, where another amendment was introduced by Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, in the hope of addressing some law enforcement concerns.

The bill as amended now calls for no-cash, no-condition bail only for Class B misdemeanors, not for higher level, Class A offenses.

The amendment from Feltes also clarifies procedures for seeking annulments of previous convictions and creates a study commission to continue the examination of New Hampshire’s pretrial detention policies.

“This is common sense bail reform that protects taxpayers and public safety,” said Feltes.

While the late changes to the bill addressed issues raised by the state police chiefs association, according to Feltes, county attorneys remain opposed.

“As much as we appreciate what Sen. Feltes has done, we still have our concerns,” said Thomas Velardi, Strafford County Attorney, who authored a May 9 letter to Sununu on behalf of all 10 county attorneys.

“It is essential to note that none of us subscribes to a system of pretrial release that punishes accused citizens for being indigent,” according to the letter. “SB 556, however, makes sweeping changes to our existing bail statute, which we believe will compromise our ability to protect our communities from dangerous offenders who commit crimes even while on bail.”

The county attorneys are concerned that passage of SB 556 “would unquestionably place back onto the streets many offenders who previously would have qualified for some order of detention.”

The lack of pretrial services to make sure defendants show up in court, absent bail, has been a major issue for law enforcement.

“Our collective position is that SB 556 moves too quickly in the direction of pretrial release without adequate supervision resources being put in place, and we are opposed to its passage,” writes Velardi.

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.

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.

In his first veto, Sununu sided with law enforcement last month when he rejected HB 143, a bill reforming parole procedures.

It gave the Adult Parole Board more discretion in deciding whether to send parole violators back to jail, particularly those involved in addiction-related offenses if they were seeking treatment.

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