Chief Justice Nadeau presents new proposal for trying felony cases

CHIEF JUSTICE TINA L. NADEAU presented a proposed new system for trying felony-level cases to Carroll County Commissioners at their April 3 meeting. County Attorney Robin Gordon listened attentively. (Image courtesy of (click for larger version)
April 10, 2014
OSSIPEE — "What I am trying to do is to design a system that makes more sense to everybody that is in the criminal justice system," N.H. Superior Court Chief Justice Hon. Tina L. Nadeau told Carroll County Commissioner at their meeting April 3, as she presented her proposed plan for expediting the judicial process.

Nadeau is proposing that the circuit court system will no longer be involved in the processing of felony-level cases, as nothing can be resolved at that level anyway.

The current system is multi-layered and is delaying resolution of court cases by as much as 90 days. When a person is charged with a felony, the charging police department files the complaint with the circuit court. An arraignment is held where the defendant is formally notified of the charges and then there is a bail hearing. Following this, a probable cause hearing is held in circuit court. The charges are then bound over to superior court. The county attorney then gets the charges and presents in front of the grand jury to get an indictment. This is followed by another arraignment, another bail hearing, pre-trial hearings, and finally the case goes to court. Meanwhile, nearly a year goes by while defendants sit in jail or "they are out on bail committing more crime because no sanctions have been issued," said Nadeau.

Nadeau said that typically 95 to 98 percent of felony cases are currently resolved short of going to trial, so why not cut out the circuit court processes and get this resolution sooner?

There are many benefits to having cases resolved sooner, in addition to the money that could be saved in jail and police budgets. Nadeau said that the sooner sanctions are imposed upon defendants, the less likely they will be to re-offend. She said if the court was managing cases better, the victims would get resolution sooner and would not have to keep coming to court.

Her plan is not just about "quick justice" she said. "We want better outcomes. The sooner you resolve a case because the witnesses' memories are fresh and the defendant is more likely to be accountable and feel contrition, the more likely you are to solve cases and reduce pre-trial confinement," she said.

Defendants who are eligible for drug court, mental health court or diversion could be identified earlier so that those services could be rendered more effectively.

Under her proposed plan, the circuit court would be eliminated completely from the felony process and those charges would automatically be filed in Superior Court. This, she said, would save two to three months of time per case. For the plan to work, a concept called Vertical Prosecution would need to be implemented, something that has been done with success in Strafford County. In this process, the county attorney's office would take over the prosecution of felonies as soon as the complaint is filed. By taking this work away from police departments, 45 to 50 percent of cases could be solved very early on. This is a bonus to taxpayers because, she said, overtime costs would be reduced and police could focus on doing police work.

It would also reduce the pre-trial detention time defendants are sitting in jail. As one example, she noted that as of Feb. 28, 23 inmates were being held in Grafton County Jail awaiting trial at a cost of $100 per day. If two months of pretrial status could be eliminated, this amounts to $6,000 per each of those 23 inmates, a savings of $138,000.

In addition to getting buy-in to the proposed changes from prosecutors, police, jail superintendents, and sheriffs across the state, Nadeau's plan would also need the support of amending Rule 98 which governs superior court practices.

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