N.H. Judicial Council discusses “wish list” to evaluate Felonies First

Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Members of the New Hampshire Judicial Council are crafting a data “wish list” as they prepare for a more thorough evaluation next year of a statewide program designed to streamline felony cases.

The council concluded in its second annual report last month that key stakeholders – to include prosecutors, defense attorneys and law enforcement agencies – are not all maintaining the data necessary for a thorough evaluation of Felonies First. In anticipation of the new year, council members are working to determine what information could aid in that process, who could best provide the data and whether it is even possible to obtain given available resources.

“We’re beholden to the people that we’re going to ask to provide the data. There is no way we can force anybody, other to inform them,” said member Nina Gardner during a council meeting Wednesday in Concord. “Can you get it? Can your counterparts get it? Because it really makes this a true picture, a better picture, of what’s going on.”

Gardner, former executive director of the council, noted that each of the state’s 10 counties have now implemented Felonies First, which was not yet the case when the council was compiling information for the second annual report. After a staggered rollout of the program, every county was on board as of Oct. 1.

Under Felonies First, more serious criminal cases are handled in the state’s superior courts, instead of starting in the circuit courts, where they had been traditionally filed. The circuit courts do not have the authority to resolve felony cases, which is why they were forwarded to superior court after a probable cause determination.

Felonies First eliminates the automatic probable cause hearing, although the defense can still request one at the superior court level.

The council hopes to finalize its data request during a follow-up meeting in early December so that those affected can assist come Jan. 1. By the new year, even the counties new to Felonies First would have had an opportunity to work out some of those initial kinks that happen with any systemwide change, council members said.

One area that council members hope to explore in greater depth is whether the number of felony cases resolved as misdemeanors has dropped under the new system. Initial data generated by the New Hampshire Public Defenders Office show a steady decline since felony cases have been filed in superior courts.

But council members said Wednesday that that information alone does not tell the full story.

Superior Court Clerk Karen Gorham said it will be important for county attorney’s offices to be able to document exactly how they handled felony arrests referred to them by local law enforcement, to include how many cases were filed in court as misdemeanors and how many weren’t filed at all.

Council members said they’re also interested in what cases are being resolved in the early stages, and whether that is consistent from county to county. Along those same lines, they said, they want to know the time it takes a case to reach a disposition under the new system versus the old.

Manchester-based attorney Phillip Utter also spoke about the need to compare dispositions in felony cases under both systems, including whether defendants were sentenced to state prison, county jail or suspended time. That information will help the council ensure that justice under Felonies First is fair and equitable, and that the program has not resulted in any undue harm to defendants.

A date for the council’s December meeting has not yet been set.

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