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New Hampshire’s Legal Shift: Understanding the Repeal of “Felonies First”

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The Rise and Fall of “Felonies First”

Understanding the Repeal of “Felonies First”. In 2016, New Hampshire embarked on a judicial experiment known as “Felonies First,” a program that aimed to revolutionize the way felony cases were handled in the state’s judicial system. The idea was straightforward: initiate felony cases directly in superior court, bypassing the circuit court, to expedite the legal process. This reform attempted to reach quicker resolutions to serious criminal cases, purportedly benefiting both defendants and victims. The program also aimed to use court resources more economically.

Original Intentions of “Felonies First”

The program was born out of a desire to simplify and speed up the judicial process. Before “Felonies First,” felony-level cases – encompassing offenses like murder, sex crimes, and significant theft – started in circuit court, which held a probable cause hearing to determine if the case should be “bound over” to the superior court.  However, since circuit courts only handle misdemeanor cases, felonies most often were simply moved to superior courts upon establishing probable cause. This two-step process was seen as a bottleneck, slowing down case resolutions.

The Promise and the Reality

The supporters of “Felonies First” hoped the new program would reduce these delays by offering ‘same justice, sooner.’ However, contrary to expectations, and even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many felt the program was faltering. Instead of streamlining justice, it reportedly added an average of two months to the resolution time of felony cases.

Defense Attorneys and Prosecutors Speak Out

Many defense attorneys and some county prosecutors voiced their concerns, highlighting the loss of an informal bargaining system under the old system that often led to resolving less-serious felony cases with pleas to lesser charges.

Mixed Testimonies and Data

Despite these criticisms, there are mixed opinions and data regarding the program’s effectiveness. Belknap County Attorney Andrew Livernois and others argue that “Felonies First” benefits victims by allowing immediate involvement of prosecutors and victim witness advocates. Similarly, Richard Head, from the judicial branch, contested claims of increased case resolution times, citing a reduction from about 300 days to 200.

The Debate Over Repeal

State representative Bob Lynn, a retired state Supreme Court justice, suggested getting more information to reconcile the conflicting testimonies. He proposed possibly amending the program rather than a complete repeal, preserving some of its beneficial aspects, like the firm deadline for plea decisions.

House Bill 1597

Nevertheless, Rep. Ned Gordon, a Bristol Republican and former circuit court judge, brought forward House Bill 1597, which revokes the Felonies First system.  The bill, recommended unanimously by a 21-0 committee vote, sought to begin all felony prosecutions in circuit court again. The bill was passed by the New Hampshire house on May 13, 2023, by the Senate on June 14, 2023, and signed into law by Governor Sununu on June 29, 2023. It becomes effective January 1, 2024.

Balancing Efficiency and Justice

The debate surrounding House Bill 1597 and the future of “Felonies First” encapsulates a broader challenge faced by the legal system: balancing the need for efficiency with the imperative of delivering fair and timely justice. On one hand, “Felonies First” was an ambitious attempt to modernize and streamline the state’s judicial process. On the other, the mounting evidence and criticisms suggest that its implementation may have fallen short of its noble goals. As New Hampshire reverts to its previous system, the lessons learned from “Felonies First” will be crucial in shaping a more effective judicial process that serves the interests of all involved – the accused, the victims, and the justice system itself.

For more help with understanding the repeal of felonies first, contact us. At Cohen and Winters we stay up-to-date on the latest changes to laws so that we can understand how these would impact our clients. If you’re in need of experienced criminal defense, get in touch with our team. We offer free consultations and are here to help ensure you get fair representation.

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