‘Felonies first’ program underway in Hillsborough County

NASHUA – Nearly two weeks into the implementation of the state Judicial System’s new “felonies first” program, by which suspects charged with felony offenses are arraigned in their county’s Superior Court, rather than in a circuit, or district court, all seems to be going well at Hillsborough County Superior Court South in Nashua.

Both Hillsborough South and Hillsborough North, in Manchester, began operating under the program on Sept. 1, and in doing so became the eighth and ninth Superior Courts to adopt felonies first.

The final two courts to adopt felonies first – Rockingham County and Sullivan County – are scheduled to begin the program on Oct. 1, at which time all 11 county courts will be operating under felonies first. Each of New Hampshire’s 10 counties has one Superior Court, except for Hillsborough, which, due to its larger population, has two.

“It’s going very smoothly,” Superior Court South clerk Marshall Buttrick said of the program.

The lion’s share of the skepticism surrounding felonies first has come from defense attorneys, many of whom cite the elimination of automatic probable cause hearings as possibly infringing on defendants’ rights.

A probable cause hearing can be requested, however, after a complaint is filed in Superior Court, but before the defendant is indicted by the grand jury.

“The significant reduction in scheduled probable cause hearings is expected to save municipalities overtime costs that had been accrued when an officer was required to appear in court for a scheduled hearing,” the New Hampshire Judicial Council said in its early 2017 report on the status of felonies first.

“Additional savings were anticipated through the elimination of felonies and related cases from the circuit court docket,” the report states.

Previously, all defendants, whether they were charged with felonies, misdemeanors or a combination thereof, were arraigned in their local circuit, or district court on the first business day after their arrest.

Those unable to post bail, or who refuse bail, were arraigned in their local court via video conference from Valley Street Jail. Those who were able to make bail, or were given personal recognizance bail, would be arraigned in person within a certain amount of time.

Under felonies first, a defendant charged with one or more felonies – along with any misdemeanors they may also be charged with – is arraigned in Superior Court the afternoon following their arrest.

At least for the time being, the defendants are brought to court and arraigned in person rather than via video conference. It’s not yet known if, or when, officials will switch to video arraignments.

Defendants who are only charged with misdemeanor offenses will continue to be arraigned in their local district courts, or via video conference if they cannot make bail.

The Superior Courts in Strafford and Cheshire counties were the first to implement felonies first, doing so in January 2016. Belknap County followed six months later.

The program debuted in Merrimack County on Jan. 1, 2017, and on April 1, Carroll, Coos and Grafton counties followed suit.

The goals of felonies first include not only cost savings, but to “create better outcomes for victims and defendants” by “elminating unnecessary delays,” the Judicial Council reported.

Long term, “felonies first is expected to result in lower recidivism rates,” the result of less time elapsing between defendants’ arrests and when they are brought forward and “held accountable,” according to the council.