Big change in N.H. criminal court system would route felonies directly to superior court

LACONIA — Belknap County Commissioners had proposed changes in the state court system that would see felony charges filed directly in Superior Court, bypassing the current practice of having them filed first in circuit courts, outlined to them by N.H. Superior Court Chief Justice Tina Nadeau Wednesday afternoon.
Nadeau said the goal of the program is to see 75 percent of felony level cases resolved within 90 days of being filed, 90 percent within 180 days and 98 percent within a year.
She said that currently in New Hampshire the average is 233 days passing between the time a case reaches Superior Court and it is resolved. And that doesn't even count the 45 to 90 days it takes a case to move from Circuit Court to Superior Court.
''We're duplicating what happens in Circuit Court in Superior Court. What we want to see is getting a judge with jurisdiction to resolve the case involved right away by eliminating the Circuit Court for felonies,'' said Nadeau
She said that eliminating the circuit court path for felonies will save two to three months and result in quicker resolution of felony cases, 40 percent of which she said can be resolved within 40 days of arrest, something she said is already taking place in Strafford County where an early case resolution program for property-crime cases has been in place for five years.
Nadeau said she would like to see other counties using what she called a vertical approach to felony cases, where the county attorneys' office becomes involved in felony cases immediately after arrest.
She said studies have shown that defendants who are held accountable for their actions close in time to their arrest are less likely to become repeat offenders and such an approach has an added benefit of reducing pretrial detention time, saving on costs for county jails.
Nadeau said that a pilot project which will start in Strafford County next month and Cheshire County in in July will see cases bound over from Circuit Court scheduled for an immediate hearing, or initial appearance, before a superior court judge who has jurisdiction to hear the case. At present a felony case waits three months or more once it's bound and a prosecutor can present it to a grand jury.
She said legislation will need to be passed in the next session of the Legislature which would recognize the superior court as having first jurisdiction in these cases, and that more research is being done as to whether other laws would need to change.
''This is different than our current adversarial model'' says Nadeau, who said that the project is intended to keep cases that should not have been felonies from ever reaching superior court, and to identify early those defendants who are eligible for drug court or other alternative sentencing programs.
Draft rules circulated earlier this year provide that at least 10 days before initial appearance, the state will have provided all discovery and a written plea offer. The defense must also let the state know whether it intends to raise an alibi or certain other defenses. At the initial appearance, the prosecutor and defense attorney must be ready to discuss early resolution. The defendant can waive indictment and enter a guilty plea at the initial appearance, if the parties reach an agreement.
She says if a defendant does not agree to accept a plea bargain offer within a 10-14 day period the offer will expire. "It gets the attention of the defense attorneys right away and and makes resolution of those cases before they ever move further more likely.''
She said the changes will be more fully explained to county officials at a meeting in September and that it will be two to two and a half years before the system can be fully implemented statewide.