House Judiciary Committee considers doing away with Felonies First

Monitor staff
Published: 1/27/2022 6:37:05 PM
Modified: 1/27/2022 6:35:47 PM

Lawmakers considering a bill that would allow arraignments for felony level criminal cases and probable cause hearings to take place in circuit court, reversing a program called Felonies First that was intended to streamline serious cases by skipping the district courts.

State Rep. Ned Gordon, a former circuit court judge and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, is the primary sponsor of House Bill 1597, which would undo a law passed in 2015 that created Felonies First. Under the program, all felony arraignments were held at the superior court level and defendants were not automatically scheduled for probable cause hearings.

When introducing the bill at a committee hearing on Thursday, Gordon said that Felonies First hadn’t fulfilled its promises and was not creating better outcomes for victims and defendants.

Before the program, most serious criminal cases originated in district courts, which do not have the authority to resolve felony cases, then were transferred to county superior courts. Felonies First sought to make that system more efficient.

Gordon said that the felony cases were not being resolved faster, counties had taken on extra costs and that the superior courts were now dealing with the misdemeanors and violations accompanying felony cases that would have previously been resolved on a lower court level.

“Sometimes what seems like a good idea just doesn’t work out, and we ought to be able to acknowledge that,” Gordon said. He suggested that some parts of the program could be maintained even under his legislation, such as the involvement of county attorneys in felony arraignments.

The New Hampshire Judicial Council released two reports on the progress of Felonies First in 2017 and 2019, but evaluating the progress of Felonies First was complicated by an increase in drug-related felony arrests during that period.

Currently, the criminal courts are experiencing a heavy backlog of cases due to COVID-19 delays in 2020 and 2021, an issue worsened by a shortage of public defenders to represent indigent clients.

Criminal defense attorneys, public defenders and county attorneys spoke at a public hearing Thursday about the shortcomings of the program, most in favor of returning to the old system.

Randy Hawkes, executive director of New Hampshire Public Defender, said that between 2015 and 2019, the length of time needed to resolve an average felony case increased by almost two months, according to his office’s case management data. The public defender program represents 90% of cases in the indigent defense system.

Hawkes also said that the number of felonies resolved as a misdemeanor or lesser resolution statewide decreased from 62% before Felonies First was implemented to 50% in 2019.

“What we’ve done with Felonies First is we’ve created an artificial chokehold at superior courts,” said Paul Halvorsen, Merrimack County Attorney, noting that in 2015, 37% of felonies in Merrimack County were resolved in circuit courts instead of at superior court.

Most speakers favored the bill, but Belknap County Attorney Andrew Livernois and Katie Horgan of the Association of Counties spoke in favor of keeping the current system in place.

Livernois said that although Felonies First had increased his own caseload, he believed the program had improved his office’s ability to prosecute felony cases effectively and provided a better process for victims of crimes.

Judicial Branch Government Affairs Coordinator Richard Head said he was not opposing the legislation but described a lengthy, multi-step process prior to Felonies First that came with the potential for more errors and delays.

“The purpose of my testimony is there is a significant negative impact on the circuit court if this were to pass, and I think that’s important for you to know as legislators,” Head said.


Cassidy Jensen bio photo

Cassidy Jensen has been a reporter at the Monitor, covering the city of Concord and criminal justice, since July 2021. Previously, she was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, where she earned a master's degree. Her work has been published in Documented, THE CITY, Washington City Paper and Street Sense Media. When she's not at City Council meetings, you can find her hiking in the White Mountains.



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