Dartmouth professor named chair of New Hampshire parole board

by Pierce Wilson | 1/14/20 2:00am

On Dec. 12, New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu (R) designated writing and rhetoric professor Jennifer Sargent as the new chair of the New Hampshire Adult Parole Board.

Sargent, who has a range of experience in the legal and educational fields, will begin her tenure tomorrow, and Donna Sytek, outgoing chairman, will remain on the parole board as a member.  

“Governor Sununu hopes that Jennifer Sargent will modernize and professionalize the parole board over and above the reforms that have already been ushered in,” the governor’s communications director Benjamin Vihstadt ’16 wrote in an email. “Jennifer came highly recommended to our office and quickly rose to the top of qualified candidates who have the relevant experience to get the job done.” 

According to Vihstadt, although members of the parole board are volunteers nominated by Sununu, the Board operates independently from the governor’s office and other legislative bodies. Sargent said she considers herself “apolitical.”

“The overarching goal is to create a culture of consistency,” said Sargent, who first joined the parole board in late 2019. According to Sargent, creating this culture “will involve creating standard procedures and policies using evidence-based practices and guidance from agencies that study corrections and reentry.” 

Sargent also said that she has been directed to “bring the parole board into the 21st century,” as it has “been operating for decades with an inadequate budget and an inadequately staffed office.” 

Sargent said she hopes to improve the amount of resources accessible to the board as well as how those resources are used. She said that these decisions will result from an analysis of current practices. 

At the College, Sargent teaches courses on the criminal justice system, gender studies and constitutional law. 

“The classroom gives me information I bring to the parole board, and the parole board gives me information I bring to the classroom and to my writing and research,” Sargent said. “Everything I’ve done in the court system and as an educator has taught me about listening to various viewpoints, critically studying evidence and evidence-based practices, and creating systems with goals and strategies in mind. I wouldn’t be good at any of this without all the experience I’ve had in government, courtrooms and classrooms.” 

Sargent elaborated on the missions Sununu has tasked her with, saying that it is an “extraordinary challenge and opportunity to make New Hampshire’s parole system a model parole system.” 

“Parole serves many interests, the primary one being public safety,” she said. “Protecting and serving all of those interests with modern evidence-based practices is really exciting.”

In addition to her work at Dartmouth, Sargent has also taught at Vermont Law School, served as the managing attorney of the New Hampshire Public Defender, worked a special justice for the Lancaster and Haverhill District Courts as well as the disciplinary counsel for the New Hampshire Supreme Court Office of Attorney Discipline, and has advised writer Jodi Picoult on legal content. 

Government professor Herschel Nachlis, who teaches American public policy, spoke of the challenges faced in modernizing parole — the likes of which Sargent will likely face in her new role. 

 “In criminal justice in general and sentencing in particular, historically, there has been sort of tension and battles between consistency and discretion,” he said.  

Nachlis said he feels that Sargent’s experience in many areas of the legal system will be helpful in her new role. 

“What Professor Sargent’s unusual range of experience will allow her to do is know that it’s not just the decisions you make at the parole board, it’s what you do afterwards and the programs you set up afterwards to help folks out,” Nachlis said.