County Attorney race could set tone for how region addresses systemic racism in criminal justice system

  • People arrive for the tour of the new Merrimack County Courthouse in back of the former building off of Court Street on Tuesday, October 9, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Paul Halvorsen discusses his candidacy for county attorney in an interview at the Monitor on Aug. 29, 2018.

  • Press conference with Merrimack County Attorney Robin Davis. Geoff Forester

  • Paul Halvorsen

For the Monitor
Published: 10/29/2020 3:34:42 PM

The race for county attorney, up for election Tuesday, could help set the tone for how Merrimack County responds to public demands to address systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

In stride with national trends, people of color in New Hampshire are far more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts, raising questions about how race factors into prosecution and sentencing.

County attorneys, who oversee most felony prosecutions, hold a unique position in the state’s criminal justice system, including deciding which charges to prosecute and recommending sentences to a judge after a conviction. The discretionary nature of the position leaves plenty of room for prejudice — both conscious and unconscious — to creep in.

In the race this year are incumbent Robin Davis, a Democrat, and Concord assistant city prosecutor Paul Halvorsen, a Republican. It is a rematch from 2018 when Davis won a write-in campaign during the primary and then defeated Halvorsen in the general election. 

A public defender for 15 years prior to taking office, Davis said her background gives her a unique understanding of defendants and the cycle of crime.

Still, Davis said her office did not have a standard process for accounting for implicit biases in sentencing. She said taking stock of such biases was not a focus of her first term but would be a goal going forward.

“I think we as prosecutors think that we address these things, and I think it’s really easy for individuals to think that they’re being fair and not being prejudiced,” she said.

Halvorsen said he was not in a position to comment on incarceration trends. He said he hadn’t personally witnessed racial bias during his time as a prosecutor, except for rare instances where he saw defense attorneys ask for leniency for their client on the basis of race.

He would take swift action if he saw racial prejudice while in office, he added.

“You cannot accept that at any level,” he said.

Davis replaced Scott Murray, who spent eight years as county attorney, but left the job to become U.S. Attorney for the District of New Hampshire.

Davis said strengthening rehabilitation and alternative sentencing programs has defined her first year-and-a-half on the job. She said these programs are key to tackling the underlying problems that often lead to criminal behavior — like trauma, mental health issues and substance abuse — and help lower rates of recidivism.

“When you’re looking at a criminal case, I think you have to really be problem-solving for the moment as well as for the future,” she said.

She plans to continue building up pretrial service programs, which expanded rapidly in recent months to keep those awaiting trial out of jail during the pandemic.

Halvorsen’s goals if he becomes county attorney are three-fold: building up a strong office staff, prioritizing victim involvement in the judicial process and improving relations with police. He has spent 17 years as a prosecutor for Concord and was twice elected to City Council.

Halvorsen said alternative sentencing and rehabilitation programs have their place in the criminal justice system, but that punishment must first and foremost be proportional to a defendant’s criminal history and the crime committed.

In his second bid for the position, Halvorsen has pitched himself as someone who would reverse what he sees as two years of poor leadership under Davis.

In August of last year, a former sexual assault investigator sued Merrimack County, accusing Davis of gender discrimination and creating an abusive work environment. The office has also seen unusually high staff turnover; six employees left during Davis’ first seven months in office.

Davis said she could not comment directly on the lawsuit, but that voters should not consider it a cause for concern.

“I think any time that someone comes into an organization and makes changes, these types of things can happen,” she said.

Victims’ rights are another point of interest for a country attorney, who is tasked with balancing the needs and interests of victims with those of the defendant and the public.

Some who worked with Davis voiced concerns that her emphasis on rehabilitation has gone hand-in-hand with less attention paid to victims, especially of sexual assault and abuse. 

Davis defended her team’s handling of sexual assault cases, pointing to an award one of her attorneys recently won for his work with victims and their families.

“We are regularly indicting sexual assault cases and have done successful prosecutions of those cases,” she said.

Halvorsen said he would do more to take victims’ input into account throughout the judicial process. He also pledged to strengthen relations with area chiefs of police. He has received endorsements from three current or past chiefs of police, three police unions and Governor Chris Sununu.

“No one in the county knows what’s going on in individual towns as far as criminal activity goes better than the officers that are there and the chiefs of police,” he said.

Aside from walking back several changes made during Davis’ term, Halvorsen said he did not have any major plans for the office. While he agreed concerns over high incarceration rates and systemic racism — what he called “current-event issues” — warrant examination, he said it was “as important or more important” to correct what shortcomings he saw under Davis.

Such issues appear to slowly be gaining traction elsewhere in the state justice system — the attorney general’s office is pushing for bias training for prosecutors  in November, for instance. Both Davis and Halvorsen spoke favorably about the training and said they look forward to attending.

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