Reform our broken system

Today in New Hampshire, our county jails house many people who have not been convicted of crimes. They’ve lost their freedom and stand to lose much more – their jobs, homes and cars – simply because they cannot afford to pay bail.

Making matters worse is that property taxpayers are paying a small fortune to keep these individuals behind bars. According to a study by the Belknap County corrections superintendent, his county pays $117.90 per day to house an individual, or more than $43,000 per year. Merrimack County taxpayers pay $284.18 per day, or almost $104,000 per year. These costs go directly onto your property tax bill, all because someone couldn’t afford bail.

Thankfully, relief is on the way. The Legislature recently passed Senate Bill 556, which would overhaul our bail system so that no one will have to spend time behind bars simply because they can’t pay bail. The bill ensures that individuals who are flight risks or a danger to themselves or others won’t be released. But no more will we keep the poor behind bars simply for being poor, which punishes taxpayers and society as much as those accused of a crime. New Hampshire would end what amounts to debtors’ prisons.

A broad and diverse coalition is supporting this common-sense reform, from the state’s police chiefs to the ACLU-NH and Americans for Prosperity. State Sen. Dan Feltes of Concord has worked diligently as the bill’s lead sponsor to meet with concerned groups and to address any concerns and he deserves praise for his leadership.

The only opposition came in a last-minute letter from the state’s county attorneys, who argue that keeping people in jail when they have not been convicted of a crime makes communities safer – despite the fact that a judge has not yet determined whether those individuals are a flight risk or a danger to the public.

Setting aside the illogical assertion that somehow poor people who can’t make bail are a greater threat to public safety than those who can, these county attorneys have failed to protect the county property taxpayers who pay their salaries from the substantial costs of keeping these individuals in jail.

Thankfully, Gov. Chris Sununu indicates he will sign this sweeping measure into law, which will make it easier for individuals to keep their jobs, their homes and their families while awaiting adjudication. The bill also would simplify the process of annulment for those who have completed their sentence and stayed out of the criminal justice system.

The governor’s support shows that he’s working to deliver policies that are smart on crime, but light on taxpayers. Throwing the book at low-risk individuals who judges and juries haven’t convicted does as much to penalize those paying the bills as the ones who have been arrested.

Beyond the effects of this single measure, the process shows that New Hampshire is committed to moving forward on prudent criminal justice reform. Working together, we can build on this momentum to enhance both public safety and to protect individual liberty.

Greg Moore is New Hampshire state director of Americans for Prosperity.