Anti-bail bonds advocates managed to convince New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu to sign SB 556 last year. That bill brought sweeping changes to the Granite State’s long established bail system. The goal, as stated by Sununu at the time, was to eliminate inequality in the criminal justice system by making sure no one was being held simply because they couldn’t afford bail. The reality of SB 556 however has turned out to be quite different. And law enforcement officials throughout the state are demanding changes.
SB 556 was supposed to foster equality in the justice system by making sure that even those who could not afford to post bail would be able to obtain release, just like those who could afford it. But in reality only a handful of people in New Hampshire were actually being detained because they couldn’t afford bail. And the new law, instead of fostering equality, has replaced bail with nothing and fostered a sense of lawlessness.
Under SB 556 bail commissioners and judges are instructed to disregard bail schedules and the person’s criminal record and focus only on what the defendant can afford. And determining what a person can or can’t afford is accomplished, not by having a look at their tax returns or even their pay stubs, but by asking them. That’s right. You have an accused felon in front of you and to determine their bail you ask them what they can afford to pay. Most of course say “nothing” and the court has to take their answer at face value and release them.
Of course, judges still have the right to hold individuals they deem to be dangerous. But the definition of “dangerous” has been changed by SB 556 as well. In the past, for example, prosecutors could argue that a person who had been repeatedly arrested on drug charges and who was a known addict could be held as being dangerous. After all, drug addicts often raise money to feed their habit by breaking into people’s homes and stealing things. In addition, addicts are by their very nature a danger to themselves.
Not anymore. Now they’re victims of their condition and you can’t hold their condition against them when determining if they should be held over for trial. But it isn’t just junkies that are walking the streets again shortly after being arrested for breaking and entering. Goffstown Police Chief Robert Browne cites the case of one Matthew Gedney as being typical of what’s going on in New Hampshire now that bail has been drastically curtailed.
In March of this year Goffstown Police picked up the 35 year old Gedney after spotting him prowling around, seemingly sizing up homes to burglarize. Gedney also earned a charge of resisting arrest that night when officers confronted him. When they brought him in they discovered he had several outstanding warrants issued by towns all over the state.
Naturally, based on his lengthy record and numerous outstanding warrants they detained him pending his court appearance. Right? Well, not exactly. Well then, they must have certainly slapped him with a substantial bail amount in order to ensure he would show up in court for his latest infractions, right? Nope. The fact is, that because he said he couldn’t afford to pay bail he was released free of charge on the spot. And when the day came for him to appear in court to face the prowling and resisting arrest charges where was he? Robbing a homeowner at gunpoint.
Dan Conley is a prosecutor who works with the Goffstown Police Department. He’s seen how the quality of life and public safety have suffered since Governor Sununu decided to issue everyone a “get out of jail free” card. As Conley says “We do not want to hold people that don’t need to be held, but we want the ability to hold people that need to be held.” And SB 556 removes that ability.
In addition, simply releasing virtually everyone is creating a pattern of lawlessness whereby people are racking up lengthy criminal records quickly simply because they’re free to do so. It’s the kind of thing bail supporters warned about when the anti-bail bonding cabal descended on Jefferson County, Arapahoe County and Denver County last year. A prediction that’s unfortunately proved only too accurate in New Hampshire.
Anti-bail zealots have long argued that releasing everyone reduces the number of people the city, county or state has to house, feed and take care of. And that therefore, taxpayers will enjoy big savings. The problem with that line of thinking is that it ignores the cost of having to keep track of thousands of defendants being released on their own recognizance.
It also ignores the cost of having to track down fugitives and return them to custody, a job that used be done by the bondsman at no cost to the state. And of course it also ignores the increased danger to taxpayers who now have the Matthew Gedney’s of the world standing in their living room holding a gun to their heads, instead of being in jail where he belongs.
Both the state and bail reform advocates have promised to fix the problems created by SB 556. Whether they do or not remains to be seen. In the meantime New Hampshire has become the kind of place Matthew Gedney is proud to call home.