It’s been exactly one year since the New Hampshire Courts began a major change in how felonies are prosecuted, and the state's Judicial Council has delivered it's first progress report.
Traditionally, each felony offense had to make its way through two courts: local courts, with police prosecutors, then superior court, with county prosecutors, before it could be resolved. Many say this means cases cost more and take longer to resolve than they need to.
The Felonies First pilot project began in Strafford, and Cheshire counties in January 2016, and in Belknap county six months later. It was designed to streamline the process.
Sarah Blodgett heads up New Hampshire’s Judicial Council. A year into the project, she said "We are definitely seeing efficiencies for municipalities and the court system. That kicked in right away."
Those efficiencies equate to money saved for towns and the state. Still, Blodgett says, “it really is too soon to make any definitive conclusions.”
That’s because County Attorneys are now getting more cases, and earlier, which means counties new to the program are seeing additional staffing costs -- both Belknap and Cheshire counties hired new prosecutors at a cost of about $90,000 per year. The project's backers anticipated this outcome. The remaining question is whether there are still net savings.
In the meantime, defense attorneys remain skeptical. The Felonies First legislation made probable cause hearings, which were once automatic, optional and at the discretion of a judge. Additionally, many argue the new process doesn’t give defendants enough access to their attorneys before the first court date.
NH Judicial Council Report on Felonies First