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County attorney seeks two more prosecutors to help overburdened staff

  • Belknap County Attorney Andrew Livernois tells county commissioners Thursday why his office should be allowed to hire two more attorneys to deal with the pressing caseload. “We’re not in a crisis ... but we’re having to cut corners,” Livernois told them. Michael Mortensen / Laconia Daily Sun

The Laconia Daily Sun
Published: 10/4/2021 7:00:26 PM

With lawyers in the Belknap County Attorney’s Office each handling more than 100 cases — 164 cases in one instance — prosecutors are cutting corners in order to stay on top of the workload, a situation which the County Attorney Andrew Livernois says cannot be allowed to continue.

Livernois told County Commissioners Thursday that two more attorneys need to be hired for the office in order to bring caseloads down to levels that are manageable as well as to ensure that cases are handled “in a manner that promotes justice.”

“We’re not in a crisis,” Livernois told commissioners, “but to cut through (the number of cases we have) we’re having to cut corners.”

Livernois and his four assistants are handling 710 cases between them at present, according to statistics which Livernois recently provided to the commissioners, the state’s attorney general, and members of the County Delegation which controls the size of the budget for the County Attorney’s Office.

The attorneys have carried a heavy caseload since Livernois assumed the position five years ago. Livernois said he held off requesting money to hire additional attorneys until now “out of a desire to avoid increasing the tax burden on the citizens of Belknap County,” he wrote in a memo explaining his position. “But,” he told commissioners Thursday, “we cannot continue to defy those numbers.”

Livernois said that during his tenure his office has continuously handled significantly more cases than the county attorneys’ offices in counties with comparable or smaller populations.

He noted that last year 567 cases were filed with his office, which works out to just over 113 cases for each prosecutor. By comparison, 464 cases were filed in Grafton County which has 10 prosecutors on staff — or about 46½ cases per prosecutor.

On a per capita basis, Belknap (population 60,887) has the fewest prosecutors, with one attorney for every 12,177 citizens, compared to Grafton County (population 89,777) with one prosecutor for every 8,978 citizens. Carroll County, which has a population of 13,000 fewer people, has the same number of prosecutors as Belknap County, with each of its attorneys handling slightly more than 55 cases.

The state office of the Attorney General recommends that prosecutors handle no more than 75 to 100 cases at any one time, Livernois stated in his memo.

Livernois said that the cost to add two more prosecutors would amount to $200,000 per year for salaries, benefits, and office expenses.

“It could be a 30 to 40 percent increase in the budget,” he told the commissioners.

He said if he is unable to put more attorneys on his staff he might need to resort to telling local law enforcement that his office would no longer take on certain cases — such as low-level drug-possession crimes.

“I could say to the police, ‘If you got (someone that is arrested with) less than 3 grams of fentanyl, then take it to district court,’ ” he told commissioners.

Shifting cases to district court would mean that defendants would be subject to lighter punishment.

Livernois said his philosophy has been to take all felony-level crimes where there is enough evidence to show that the accused committed the crime. He acknowledged that if he were to prosecute only more-serious crimes that would diminish the morale of local police who are tasked with enforcing the law.

Right now, according to Livernois, Belknap County prosecutors are forced to “triage” their caseloads.

“The result is that they are not able to spend enough time on each individual case to adequately prepare. Prosecutors who are overburdened are often forced to offer generous plea bargains to entice (defendants) to plead guilty, simply because the prosecutor is not able to adequately deal with the crush of pressing matters on all their cases,” he said.

Commissioner Hunter Taylor called what Livernois described as a “looming crisis,” and said he supported adding two attorneys to the County Attorney’s staff.

Fellow commissioner Glen Waring said he too supported the added positions, but asked Livernois if he would settle for one additional attorney.

“One would help, but two is what we need,” Livernois replied.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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