County attorney race centers on drug crisis response, solutions

Monitor staff
Published: 11/1/2018 5:07:26 PM

Public defender Robin Davis learned less than 24 hours before the Sept. 11 primary that a write-in campaign was underway to elect her as the Democratic nominee for Merrimack County attorney.

Davis was headed out the door of the Concord public defender’s office when a colleague first showed her the Facebook posts aimed at getting her the necessary 35 write-in votes to win the nomination. It was the afternoon of Sept. 10.

She recalled chuckling a bit before leaving work, not sure what to make of the last-minute effort in a race that had no declared Democratic candidate. It fell to the back of her mind as she looked forward to a day off with her husband to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

“The day after the election, I learned that 1,377 people had voted for me, and I now had to decide, rather quickly, whether I wanted to accept the candidacy,” Davis said. “It was shocking but at the same time quite a compliment as I understand that my name was circulated by other attorneys.”

Several factors weighed on her decision to accept the nomination and join the race against Republican nominee Paul Halvorsen, a city prosecutor in Concord for more than a decade. Foremost on her mind was her 15 years of experience as a public defender and the clients whose criminal activity stemmed exclusively from a substance abuse disorder or mental illness that had gone unaddressed.

“The opioid crisis has certainly opened up a huge view into the criminal justice system. No longer are we just seeing the stereotypical kind of cases, as this crisis affects people of all walks of life and many of whom you wouldn’t expect,” Davis said. “This mindset that we have about crime – that if you commit the crime, you’re going to do the time – has got to change. Just incarcerating someone is not going to change his or her behavior.”

She encouraged attorneys to think more creatively about the resolution of a case with the idea of putting rehabilitation first when appropriate. While she said the county has a “real appetite” for alternative sentencing programs that will serve as great building blocks moving forward, she believes even more can be done to connect defendants with community-based services before trial. Rather than holding people in jail cells, she said, greater benefits can be reaped by allowing defendants who are ready for treatment to remain in the community where they can maintain a job and housing while working on their recovery.

Halvorsen, who has been endorsed by six current or former police chiefs and several police unions, has said reducing the demand for drugs and disrupting the supply is a top issue for Merrimack County and requires an aggressive police response that targets those selling drugs, especially in high-risk areas.

Halvorsen sees a clear line between addicts and dealers.

“I agree that users and abusers need a bed in rehab and those that illegally sell drugs need a bed in prison,” Halvorsen wrote on Twitter on Sept. 12, in response to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s announcement of an additional 300 federal prosecutors across the country to boost law enforcement efforts.

Halvorsen previously told the Monitor that he disagrees with an exemption in the Drug Free School Zones statute that prevents defendants convicted of selling in a “private residence” near schools from facing enhanced penalties; he believes the use of those sentencing enhancements could have a larger impact.

Halvorsen did not disagree with Davis about the growing need for rehabilitative and treatment programs but said the county shouldn’t be the only source for those programs. Specifically, he noted that although Merrimack County does not have a veterans’ court, there are opportunities for attorneys to proactively reach out to veterans’ advocates and treatment providers to pursue an innovative case resolution.

Davis said veterans and those suffering from mental illness are of particular concern to her, in part, because jail could cause further unintended harm and trauma.

“The jail is not a medical facility and it’s certainly not a psychiatric facility,” she said. “We need to identify those folks who suffer from longstanding mental health issues early on to get them the help they need. The criminal justice system has become a catch-all for them, and we need to change that.”

Halvorsen and Davis agreed that the county attorney should work on legislative issues when appropriate, noting that the best laws are crafted when the people who are going to apply them have input from the beginning of the process.

Neither are advocates of a constitutional amendment for crime victims, citing the state’s Victim Bill of Rights as strong and sufficient. Halvorsen said statutes can be quickly amended through the legislative process when there are shortfalls in protections but that a constitutional amendment is far more permanent. Despite their positions, Halvorsen and Davis spoke about the importance of victim input and involvement in the judicial process.

Both candidates are longtime residents of the area who earned their law degrees at Franklin Pierce Law Center, now University of New Hampshire Law School, in Concord. Halvorsen retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1997 after more than 21 years of active duty service. Davis enlisted in the U.S. Army after graduating high school and was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas. After two years, she attended Keene State College thanks to the benefits provided by the G.I. bill. She graduated college in three years and remained in an inactive enlistment status for an additional three-year period.

Since accepting the Democratic nomination for county attorney, Davis has transferred from Concord to the Manchester public defender’s office and works in Hillsborough County’s courts. She said she informs every potential client of her candidacy and asks them to sign a waiver agreeing to her representation. Should she be elected Merrimack County attorney, she will not prosecute any former clients she represented as a public defender in Concord.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)

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