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New Chair of N.H. Parole Board: 'Significant Progress' Being Made On Problems Uncovered In Audit

Dartmouth College

Today, Dartmouth Professor Jennifer Sargent takes over as the chairwoman of New Hampshire’s Adult Parole Board. Her appointment comes nine months after a major audit of the board that found significant shortcomings, including the absence of standardized rules, insufficient technology, and understaffing.

NHPR’s Peter Biello spoke with Sargent earlier today to discuss the progress the board has made since the 2019 audit, and to find out what work is still to be done.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

You have a unique background. You've served as a district court judge, a public defender, a prosecutor. You've also taught at Vermont Law School and you currently teach writing at Dartmouth. How do you think your diverse experience will help inform your new role as parole board chairman?

This is a job that not only involves knowing about the inmate population, the carceral populations, and all of the law enforcement populations that surround it, go with it. But it's also a job that requires a lot of knowledge about the systems and how various pieces fit together. So it's more about having both specific and general knowledge, not only about everything that I'm gonna have to put together, but I actually have the ability to put it all together.

Last April, a state audit of the parole board found some significant problems. The audit gave the board 26 recommendations and gave them until this month, January 2020, to implement those recommendations. What progress has been made on those so far?

I would say, given the speed at which things tend to move through a bureaucracy, that we've actually made some significant progress.

We're well on our way to improving the technology. We've had meetings with the Department of Corrections technology gurus and figured out what we need. Now, it's just a question of getting it done. In terms of getting legislation together and administrative rule-making that's taking a little bit longer. We do have some legislation pending and we're gonna have it in front of the House on Wednesday. We've got our legislative session. We're getting a better handle on what kind of information beyond what information has been previously provided to us throughout the system we need. And I'm directly targeting particular types of internal processes to try to get us information faster and make it more accessible.

What kind of information are you talking about?

I'm talking about medical information, some offender records, some disciplinary information. There's information that we absolutely need as a parole board to make our public safety decisions, as well as rehabilitative decisions about the inmate or the parolee, and we don't have as ready access to it as I would like us to have. There are confidentiality concerns. There are privacy concerns. And we understand all of that. Still, we're working with the Department of Corrections to try to find a way for everybody's interests to be served and protected, and for us to get the information quickly.

Recidivism has been a major problem here in New Hampshire. According to an audit last year, 47 percent of those released on parole return to prison within three years. In your view, is there something wrong with the way the parole board has been evaluating those who have been let out on parole?

No, in my opinion, the parole board has been doing a really great job. Nobody knows really until you see the sausage being made how much work goes into the evaluation process. Everything from reviewing the past records, to understanding the victimology and the criminology and the criminogenics of a particular inmate or parolee, to looking at the medical history if we can get our hands on that. We know that we need it and we don't release people without that history. But the history is not always complete and that's not the parole board's fault, but I feel like we need to work systemically to tell everybody what we need so that if they're not currently inputting it, we get it.

The biggest problem by far, and it's no surprise to anybody is addiction and relapse. It's the addiction and relapse and the crime that comes from addiction and relapse that brings the majority of people back. And so everybody in the system, probation and parole, Department of Corrections and the parole board, we struggle with not knowing how someone is going to do with a longer leash until they get out. We're still keeping that slightly longer leash only slightly longer in most cases, but still that 47 percent in three years, I actually thought that the number would have been higher.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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