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Restitution concerns prompt work on crime annulment bill

May 21, 2019

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire lawmakers may hold off on making it easier to erase some criminal convictions after advocates and court officials raised concerns about victims’ rights and restitution.

The Senate passed a bill in March that would eliminate annulment fees, expand eligibility and reduce the waiting period to apply in certain cases. But a House subcommittee that was scheduled to make its recommendation Tuesday decided to revisit it next week, and at least one member suggested holding the bill until next year.

The bill’s supporters argue the current system unfairly benefits those with financial means and continues to punish people long after they’ve completed their sentences, with past convictions hampering employment and housing prospects.

“The goals of our corrections systems are rehabilitation, education and restoration, and a key part of restoration is annulment,” Sen. Melanie Levesque, D-Nashua, said before the Senate vote. “New Hampshire needs to reduce the difference between the experiences of convicted individuals with money and those without.”

But advocates for domestic violence victims oppose the bill, saying it jeopardizes public safety and victims’ rights by allowing criminals to get annulments before paying victims’ medical bills, compensation for property damage or full restitution otherwise.

Amanda Grady Sexton of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said New Hampshire already has some of the nation’s weakest victims’ rights laws and is one of the easiest states in which to annul criminal records.

“While criminal legal reform is a laudable goal, this legislation goes too far,” she said. “Victims will never have the ability to annul their experiences. Restitution at least makes victims financially whole, which is the least they deserve.”

Under an amendment she described to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety subcommittee, the provision allowing annulment before restitution is paid would be removed. Those convicted of felony-level domestic violence would not be allowed to have their crimes annulled, and those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors would have to wait 10 years instead of the three specified in the bill. Notifying victims would be required when a perpetrator seeks annulment, she said.

While the bill would allow someone to continue to pay restitution after annulment, the state’s legal system isn’t equipped to handle that, said Karen Gorham, administrator for the state’s superior courts. She said that would create a “fake annulment.”

“That’s been something that’s been very difficult for us to wrap our head around and figure out exactly how that process would work, where we’d hold a public hearing with a lot of people in the courtroom, but somehow pretend the conviction never happened,” she said.

Buzz Scherr, a professor at UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law, backs a different amendment. He disagreed with Gorham, saying the amendment does provide a mechanism for collecting restitution after an annulment.

“I get what Ms. Gorham says, that this would be different. That is the point,” he said. “We are creating something different. Just because we all think of annulment as ‘everything goes away completely,’ doesn’t mean statututorally, with this amendment, that’s what it is.”

The attorney general’s office also raised concerns, however, that the bill would hamper efforts to negotiate plea deals, because a defendant’s willingness to pay restitution often factors in to reduced sentences. Assistant Attorney General Sean Locke questioned whether prosecutors would trust that if restitution was later enforceable because a crime had been annulled.

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