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Jim Kenyon: A test for criminal justice reform advocates

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, May 04, 2019

Now that Jim Parker is seeking an early release from prison, the good liberals of the Upper Valley who support criminal justice reform are about to be tested.

Do they think that even a violent offender such as Parker deserves a break? Or does their compassion and belief in the powers of rehabilitation have limits?

Parker has spent 18 years in the New Hampshire State Prison for his part in the murders of Dartmouth professors Half and Susanne Zantop at their Etna home on a Saturday morning in January 2001. At the time of the grisly crimes, Parker was 16 years old.

Parker, now 34, is asking that the remaining seven years of his minimum sentence of 25 years be suspended so he can get on with his life. Under New Hampshire law, an offender who has served two-thirds of his minimum can go back to court to show he’s a changed man.

By all accounts, Parker has been a model prisoner. He’s earned a master’s degree and improved the lives of other inmates through his art, music and theater projects.

James Brown, a lieutenant at the state prison, called Parker the “most industrious individual I have observed in my 25 years working in this environment,” according to Grafton Superior Court documents filed in advance of Parker’s hearing scheduled for Aug. 2 in North Haverhill.

In another filing, Cathy Green, Parker’s attorney, wrote that Robert Kinscherff, a forensic psychologist, had evaluated Parker for his risk for future criminal behavior and determined that “Jim scores at the very low end for risk of violent behavior and reoffending.”

But should any of that matter?

Probably not to law-and-order types. A growing number of people, however, are rethinking the country’s reliance on incarceration in the name of public safety. They point out that national crime rates have fallen sharply since the early 1990s, but the U.S. still has more than 2 million people behind bars.

“There’s good reason to think the United States could safely reduce the number of people in prison and jail by half or even more,” writes legal journalist Emily Bazelon in her new nonfiction best-seller Charged.

Bazelon, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine and lecturer at Yale Law School, gave a public talk in Norwich last Wednesday about the “battle to end mass incarceration.” Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan joined Bazelon in the discussion, which was part of the nonprofit Vermont Humanities Council’s “1st Wednesdays” series, at the Norwich Congregational Church.

They talked a lot about the power that prosecutors wield in determining who gets charged and with what crimes, which is the focus of Bazelon’s book. They also delved into America’s tendency — an obsession, really — to put retribution ahead of rehabilitation.

“We have this myth that if you pay back your debt to society, we let you back in,” Donovan told the crowd of about 75 people. “That’s not true.”

Which brings me back to Parker, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for the killing of Susanne Zantop. He also agreed to testify against Robert Tulloch, his Chelsea schoolmate who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for the killing of Half Zantop. Tulloch, who was 17 at the time of the murders, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Mustering support among progressive thinkers for reducing the country’s prison population is easy when dealing in the abstract. It’s about believing that people can change and that lengthy sentences are ineffective in reducing crime.

But when the conversation turns to a specific offender who has committed a brutal crime and the victims are well-respected members of their community?

It’s too close to home. People aren’t so willing to forgive or believe an offender — even when he committed his crime at 16 — has turned his life around.

After Wednesday’s event, which was hosted by the Norwich Public Library and the Norwich Historical Society, I talked with Donovan and Bazelon about Parker’s request for early release.

Discussing reducing the prison population by freeing violent offenders is “where it gets hard,” Donovan said. “People start to worry about public safety.”

Many states, including Vermont and New Hampshire, have made measurable gains in reducing their prison populations by releasing people early for drug-related offenses. (Or better yet, not incarcerating them in the first place.)

But there’s only so much “low-hanging fruit,” Bazelon said. Further reductions require getting the public (along with politicians, prosecutors and judges) to recognize that violent offenders who have completed their rehabilitation don’t need to stay locked up for decades.

When the Zantops were murdered, Saul Lelchuk was a senior at Hanover High School. After reading about Parker’s petition for early release, Lelchuck, now an author (his first novel was released in March) and Dartmouth lecturer, recently shared his viewpoint in this paper’s Forum section.

“Sentencing guidelines are in urgent need of reform,” he wrote. “There are thousands of incarcerated men and women who should not be where they are.

“James Parker is not one of them. He is already serving a far less sentence than he deserves. At the very least he should serve it to the end, without parole.”

I don’t agree with Lelchuk, but I think he’s done a valuable service. He’s pushed the discussion about whether Parker has adequately repaid his debt to society into the public square.

Since his letter was published, Lelchuk told me that he’s heard from a lot of people who were living in the Upper Valley in 2001. “Some of them strongly support the sentiment that I expressed,” he said. Others have asked him, “What good is having Parker spend seven more years in prison going to do?”

It’s a question we all should be asking.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.