As NH lawmakers consider bail reform, police cite violent crime as reason for stricter system; advocates say crime is down

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 02-27-2023 2:10 PM

Daniel Whitmore was out for a walk last September when the 75-year-old was fatally stabbed on a trail in Manchester. It was both a senseless and random act, and authorities were quick to point out the man charged with murder, a 40-year-old man who was experiencing homelessness, was out on bail from previous arrests.

Raymond Moore had been arrested twice in the month prior to the attack on Whitmore — once in Manchester on an assault charge and once in Nashua on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

As state lawmakers are set decide the fate of multiple bills pertaining to New Hampshire’s bail reform laws next month, police and politicians point to Whitmore’s death as prime example of the system failure and need for tighter detention policies following an arrest.

What is often ignored in these fearful anecdotes is the data that shows communities are still safe as crime rates are down since bail reform was enacted in 2018, according to Frank Knaack, policy director for the ACLU-NH.

“I think it’s pretty transparent what’s actually happening, which is police trying to maintain whatever power and control they have, regardless of how it harms the public,” Knaack said

When bail reform was first introduced in 2018, supporters said it made the criminal justice system more fair by eliminating cash bail and reducing unnecessary incarceration. However, since these reforms, legislative efforts to repeal the system have been introduced each session.

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In the House, many bills remain in committee. One bill suggested that bail commissioners should be eliminated, with judges responsible for setting bail.

Other state representatives proposed requiring individuals to be held without bail for 72 hours pending an arraignment, while a different bill suggested 36 hours if an individual is deemed “a danger to the public.”

In the Senate, however, two bills will be on the docket at the March 9 session that take legitimate steps at changing the state’s bail system.

Senate Bill 252, lists certain offenses that would detain a defendant for up to 36 hours, if committed. Crimes include homicide, sexual assault, kidnappings and stalking, among others.

Donna Soucy, the Senate minority leader who is the sponsor of the bill, said repercussions of personal recognizance bail in regard to domestic violence cases was of particular concern. Oftentimes, victims are not reporting crimes out of fear that the perpetrator could retaliate if released on bail, she said.

“Simply what (SB)252 would do is identify specific crimes, the most violent of crimes, and require that a person go before a judge for consideration of bail,” she said.

Support for this bill, as with the majority of bail reform proposals, comes from state and local police officers.

Chief John Bryfonski, the Bedford police chief and the president of the New Hampshire Association of Police Chiefs, asked senators to refer to previous testimony he’d provided about the state increase in homicides over the last year, from 16 to 27. With tighter detention policies, communities would be safer, he said.

Overall, however, New Hampshire has seen a decline in statewide crime.

Group A crime, which includes the types of offenses outlined in the Senate 252 proposal, have decreased by 18% from 2018 to 2021, according to state arrest and crime statistics.

“The notion that somehow bail reform has made our communities less safe, it’s just not supported by a any actual data,” said Knaack.

Under current law, an individual can still be incarcerated pre-trail, including if they are charged with a second offense, said Knaack. Prosecutors are also able to challenge release orders and revoke bail if any terms of the agreement are violated.

The second piece of legislation, Senate Bill 249, directly addresses these situations where repeat offenses occur.

The focus of this bill is third-time offenders who are out on bail. In those cases, it would be presumed the defendant would not follow the conditions of bail and therefore be subject to detainment.

“There needs to be some accountability,” said bill sponsor Senator Daryl Abbas, a Salem Republican. “If a person is released on bail, one of the conditions of their release is to not commit a new offense. If there’s no consequence of violating a condition of your release, I will suggest that what is the point of having conditions of bail in the first place?”

Knaack said both bills fail to consider the collateral damage of detaining an individual.

“If you hold someone for 24 hours, there is separation from their family, their childcare responsibilities, if they are a shift worker they could lose their job, lose their home, lose their apartment,” said Knaack.

For lawmakers looking to amend the system, Knaack points to a different bill this legislative session that would offer a solution – House Bill 46, which would establish a committee to study replacing bail commissioners with court magistrates.

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