Jeanne Hruska: Why county attorney races are a big deal

For the Monitor
Published: 10/10/2018 11:00:02 PM

Pop quiz. Who is the most powerful person in the criminal justice system? No, it’s not a judge. It’s your local county attorney. What makes your county attorney so powerful? As government prosecutors, they decide in criminal cases who’s charged, the severity of those charges, or if any charges are filed. In the plea bargaining process, county attorneys often have more power than judges. Put simply, they are the gatekeepers to the criminal justice system.

Second question in this pop quiz, how do county attorneys get to be county attorneys? Answer: they are popularly elected just like state representatives and senators. And yet, they are often one of the least understood elected positions and least known by voters.

This needs to change. As gatekeepers, county attorneys make life-changing decisions for thousands of people here in New Hampshire every day. County attorneys’ views on criminal justice policy set the tone for how our communities respond to societal issues and have great influence on the police and Legislature. Their views and opinions matter, not only in the courtroom, but at the State House as well. That’s why Granite Staters must hold county attorney candidates accountable and insist that they inform us of their values and priorities.

It’s the county attorney who has the most say in whether someone goes to prison and for how long. Prosecutors have the power to flood jails and prisons, but they also have the discretion to do the opposite. They have the power to champion and enact criminal justice reform.

County attorneys have the power to insist that people be treated fairly in everything from charging, to trial, to sentencing – regardless of race, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation or other factors.

County attorneys help decide whether people with substance use disorders and other mental illness go to jail, or get access to more effective solutions like community-based treatment.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. County attorneys can help fix that with fair charging and sentencing, and by championing alternatives to prison like diversion and treatment programs.

And yet, this past year, many county attorneys across New Hampshire opposed the bipartisan bail reform legislation that both the N.H. House and Senate passed by voice votes, and which Gov. Chris Sununu signed in July. The objective of bail reform is to prevent people from being jailed pre-trial simply because they are too poor to afford bail. Comprehensive bail reform is absolutely pivotal to ending mass incarceration and promoting economic justice wherein poverty isn’t treated as grounds for incarceration.

As elected officials, county attorneys are accountable to us. They have an obligation to increase transparency by meeting with community members and publicly sharing information about how their office operates, about their values, and about what policies they would promote as county attorney.

The ACLU-NH encourages Granite Staters to engage their candidate or candidates for county attorney on criminal justice reform issues. As a starting point, the ACLU-NH recently sent out a questionnaire to all county attorney candidates in the state, asking them four open-ended questions about their views on mass incarceration, diversion programs, and community engagement. We are grateful to those candidates who responded, enabling voters to get to know them better. Granite Staters can read all responses to the questionnaire on the ACLU-NH website.

(Jeanne Hruska is policy director for ACLU-NH.)

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