Criminal Justice Experts Lay Out Roadmap for Bail Reform
A commission of criminal justice experts convened by lawmakers has issued its recommendations for how New Hampshire should implement bail reform.
Among other things, it recommends that the courts keep track of whether defendants commit new offenses while out on bail; that the state pay bail commissioner fees if the defendant is indigent; that victims generally not be required to testify at a bail hearing; and that the state adopt a text messaging system to remind defendants about their court date.
The suggestions come about five months after the passage of SB 556, a bail reform law designed to prevent poor people who don’t pose a public threat from sitting in jail until trial.
SB 556 mandated the formation of a Commission on Pretrial Detention, Pretrial Scheduling and Pretrial Services, so in September, a group of bail reform skeptics and supporters began meeting to discuss what reform should look like on the ground.
Justice Tina Nadeau, Chief Justice of the N.H. Superior Court and a member of the commission, says getting rid of bail for non-dangerous offenders means less people are incarcerated before their trial.
"We have to remember that when someone is arrested, they are presumed innocent until they are proven guilty," she says. "And we have to get away from this sort of pre-trial sentencing mentality that doesn't benefit anybody."
Some of the law's critics argue that without pretrial detention or the incentive of bail, defendants won't come to their court date.
Justice Nadeau says the new text message system - already piloted in some N.H. courts - will help deal with that.
"There are studies that show text reminders increase appearance rates for those people who don't appear by about 30 to 50 percent," she says.
Lieutenant Mark Morrison, a police representative to the commission, says he's worried that the commission hasn't gone far enough to protect alleged victims from being asked to testify at a bail hearing.
"If you have a domestic violence arrest that results in someone being held, that victim who may still be recovering from injuries - like physical injuries - could be called to testify in the hearing about whether that person should be let out," he says.
The commission recommends that alleged victims not be required to testify but does not ban their testimony entirely.
Senator Dan Feltes, a former legal aid attorney who sponsored the bill and chaired the commission, called the recommendations "common sense changes that will bolster that legislation by clarifying the process, further improving transparency, and helping to reduce overall costs.”
Commission members said they were optimistic that legislators would take up their recommendations in the next legislative session.