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N.H. Political Races Down Ballot: What Does The County Attorney Do?

Michael Brindley / NHPR
Voters in Derry during the state primary on Sept. 8, 2020.

New Hampshire voters will choose a number of local political leaders, from county officers to state reps, on Nov. 3. Every Friday leading up to the election on Weekly N.H. News Roundup, we talk about one of these down-ballot offices, from what powers they hold, to how they impact your daily life.

We talked about the role of county attorney with Paul Cuno-Booth, a reporter for the Keene Sentinel who has covered the significance of this race in New Hampshire

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County attorney in brief:

Chief prosecutor of crime in a county, sets the tone for the county criminal justice system, including sentencing and plea bargaining, as well as drug treatment and correctional programs. 

This interview comes from a computer-generated transcript, and has been edited lightly for clarity. 

Listen to the full episode of Weekly N.H. News Roundup here (audio for this discussion is at ~40 minutes).

What power does the county attorney hold?

Paul Cuno-Booth: The county attorney is the chief prosecutor in the county. It's what some other states call a district attorney or D.A. They are responsible for prosecuting most felonies and sometimes misdemeanors in their counties. 

They really do have a lot of power in the criminal justice system. We've talked a lot about police this year, and police, of course, are another key actor. But once police make an arrest, prosecutors are the people who look at that arrest and say, "Okay, is there actually evidence here to go forward?" If there's not, they can decline to prosecute. 

If they do move forward, the [county attorney] is the person who decides, "What charges are we actually going to file?"

And then, they play a very important role in determining the outcome. One reason for this is that most criminal cases nowadays never go to trial, they're worked out through a plea-bargaining process. So it really matters who is negotiating.

Is that prosecutor saying, "I'm going to insist on a felony conviction in this case," or, "I'll let your client plead down to a misdeameanor?" "I'm going to insist on jail time because I think this kind of offense is serious enough," or, "I'm going to accept probation or some kind of treatment-focused sentence?" 

There's enough discretion built into the system that county attorneys in different parts of the state, in theory, can take different approaches to how they prosecute the same types of crime. 

This is a really key voice in the broader public safety system.

How does the county attorney impact our daily lives?

Paul Cuno-Booth: For most people, there's probably a minimal direct impact, but if you're accused of a crime, or you're a victim of a crime, it really does matter who is in that seat. 

I think the broader implication for most people is that this is a really key voice in the broader public safety system. There's a lot of attention nowadays on alternatives in the criminal justice system, whether that's pretrial diversion or drug courts, which are well-established in New Hampshire. 

For programs like that to work, often you need the prosecutor's buy-in. 

Who usually runs for, and gets elected to, this position?

Paul Cuno-Booth: You have to be a lawyer, which definitely shrinks the pool of candidates. This is actually a position that often goes uncontested. Seven of the ten races this year, I believe, have just one person, the incumbent, running. And that's a common pattern in New Hampshire. Often, it's the incumbent who's been there a while who gets re-elected without opposition. 

There are a couple more contested races in the bigger counties and nationwide. There's actually been an interesting movement in the past couple of years to elect so-called "progressive prosecutors," who have tried to minimalize incarceration, or make reforms to the system. But the short answer is that not many people run for county attorney. 

Why is this an elected position?

Paul Cuno-Booth: That's a great question. I don't know the full history of it, but I think the idea is that it does allow some democratic accountability in this position. 

So, like I was saying, this progressive prosecutor movement is something where activists around the country have said, "Hey, this is an elected position. We can support a candidate who believes in a different type of criminal justice, and use our voices to achieve that."

By the other token, of course, there are also people who run on more "tough on crime" positions. But in theory, at least, there's the potential for voters to choose what vision they want, or who they want in that office.

What is the term length?

Paul Cuno-Booth: Two-year terms. 

Criminal justice is one of these issues where partisan affiliation doesn't always track directly with policy. It's not as clean as some other issues.

What are some of the big races in New Hampshire this year?

Paul-Cuno Booth: There are three contested races in the bigger counties: Rockingham, Hillsborough, and Merrimack. 

Criminal justice is one of these issues where partisan affiliation doesn't always track directly with policy. It's not as clean as some other issues. So I would encourage voters to actually read up on your candidate.

There are Republicans who are on the more "law and order" track, but also, some who are more in a Libertarian direction. And among Democrats, there may be more traditional law enforcement types, and also these "progressive" candidates. Just looking at the "D" or "R" by their name doesn't necessarily tell you what their views are. 

More 2020 Coverage: 2020 Election Guide: How To Vote Absentee Or At The Polls in N.H. During COVID-19

Jessica previously worked as a producer for NHPR's The Exchange, wedging in as many discussions as possible about the environment, wildlife, and the outdoors. You can hear her occasionally as a substitute host on NHPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Christina joined the Civics 101 team in 2021. Previously, she worked on The Exchange, NHPR's flagship live news talk program, where she produced shows on topics including healthcare, social services, politics, and breaking news. She grew up all over the country, but considers New Hampshire her home base.

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