Bail Reform Law Needs a Fix for the Most Violent, Senate Panel Told
By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — In a proposed amendment to the state’s bail reform law, those charged with violent crimes against individuals would appear before a judge instead of going to a bail officer.
The 2018 bail reform law isn’t fully working, and law enforcement and at least one mayor would like to see changes, they told the state Senate Judiciary Committee.
In most violent crimes, the accused should be detained until they can go before a judge, senators were told Wednesday.
“Crime victims deserve a lot more than we give them,” said Manchester Police Chief Allen Aldenberg, who testified in support of Senate Bill 248.
Sponsored by State Senator Daryl Abbas R-Salem, a similar Democratic bill, Senate Bill 252, was also heard.
Buzz Scherr, a Portsmouth police commissioner-elect and law professor, said he appreciated Aldenberg’s testimony but said some of the examples he cited were not covered by this potential law because they allegedly committed misdemeanors. This would only apply to criminal offences.
Research by his UNH law students examined 508 cases and he said there were only four circumstances in which a person was released on bail and a request for bail to be revoked was made. “It’s the failure of prosecutors,” he said, “not the bail law.”
Scherr said there are many reasons prosecutors fail, including being overwhelmed with the workload.
Under the law, which would automatically lead to jail on a dozen counts, it could be up to four days before that person sees a judge, and that can be extremely traumatic, he said.
About 37 percent of those 508 cases examined were dismissed, he said. If the law passes, “we’re going to incarcerate people excessively.” He said the bill would also be incredibly expensive for the state and bog down the court system. “The problem is not the statute. The problem is the administration of the statute,” said Scherr.
Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig spoke out in favor of SB 252, saying bail reform has had a negative impact on her city, the state’s largest. Though she’s set to help those who can’t afford bail, she said the changes have unintended consequences.
“This law will ensure that a judge makes a well-informed decision,” she said.
Contradicting Scherr’s data, she said there was a 20 percent increase in recidivism during release in the first year after bail reform.
She cited the murder of Daniel Whitmore, 75, of Manchester in September 2022. Just days before Whitmore’s death, the defendant was arrested in Nashua for violating his previous bail terms. He was transported from Nashua to Hillsborough County House of Corrections in Manchester and again released on personal credit.
“This tragic outcome could probably have been avoided with changes to our bail system,” Craig said. She called it bail reform with “common sense.” “This is a step we can take to keep our communities safe,” the mayor said.
Bedford Police Chief John Bryfonski, speaking on behalf of New Hampshire police chiefs, said chiefs support any “minor, surgical, reasonable changes” required in the bail bond reform act that would occur if SB 248 were passed. This would only affect a small number of people charged with the most serious crimes and would not overload the judiciary, he said.
He said that when it comes to statistics, “you have to look at all the moving parts.” This is really about the victims of crime,” he said. “And whether or not it results in one less murder… it’s worth considering and passed as is.”
Brian Trefry, a Nashua police captain, within hours gave an example of a violent crime and a re-offending, including a rape in 2021. Bail bondsmen have the ability to request preventive detention and in most cases do so upon request, he said. But “if we can’t get him that argument… he’ll be thrown back out on the street.” Often these bail bondsmen work in the early hours of the morning and don’t have the full picture that a judge would, police said. But changes could come at the expense of a stressed court system, said Richard Head, government affairs coordinator for the state’s judiciary.
He said she had no comment on the bill but said there would be financial and timing implications for the county court system. About 127,000 cases are filed there annually and there are 32 full-time judges for 249 sitting days. In addition, there are legal deadlines. “You are under enormous pressure in this system. The system is full as we have it right now,” Head said. He asked for the implementation date to be extended to accommodate system requirements for sequencing.
State Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said: “What I’m seeing is a revolving door… that’s not in the best interest of public safety and that’s something we need to stop.”
Head said he was just trying to explain the aftermath.
“We’re pushing a lot into the system in one day, Jan. 1,” Head said. “I’m not questioning the public safety aspect of what you said.”
Frank Knaack, policy director at the New Hampshire ACLU, spoke out against the bill. “We have several tools under the current law that are not being used,” he said. He said the current system allows for individualized regulations rather than a one-size-fits-all policy. He said crime has fallen 18 per cent in the state since bail reform and has fallen 13 per cent in Manchester.
Jeff Odland, president of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Laws, urged the committee to consider keeping the current bail system “because the system focuses on individualized bail decisions and not on a category that is the accused.” criminal act”.
He argued that someone with a restraining order — say, a spouse who texted the other to say “happy birthday” to a child — could be automatically detained for up to four days, and for those days, not just his freedom , but also could lose his employment.
He urged lawmakers to consider whether there is a crisis, which he says isn’t the case. Carson said voters quickly began calling lawmakers with concerns after bail reform passed.
State Senator Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, said both bills would do the same thing to help improve the system. She said bail reform happened in 2018, and “when that change happened, the infrastructure to accommodate it wasn’t in place,” she said.
“Bail commissioners, while trained, needed more training,” she said, and that varies across the state. County law firms change due to elections and have exceptional caseloads. “What SB 252 would do would identify the most violent crimes and go before a judge. That doesn’t necessarily mean people would wait for days and not require full-scale incarceration,” Soucy said.
OTHER BILLS The Judiciary Committee also heard SB 249 https://www.gencourt.state.nh.us/bill_Status/billinfo.aspx?id=965, which would amend the statute to oblige those who later committed offenses while on Bail and still on trial should be held in prison awaiting trial.
Another bill relating to community-based alternatives to sentencing primary caregivers, Senate Bill 254, was prompted to kill by its sponsor, Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka, D-Portsmouth. She said she would instead convene a working group on the issue.
The Senate Judiciary Committee agreed to recommend the bill as impractical for legislation. Senate Bill 264 refers to the Parenthood Act regarding embryo donation.
Perkins Kwoka said the assisted reproductive bill — with donors — would allow families and individuals to use the justice system more easily. The committee concluded hearings without voting on bills other than SB 254.