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'On the brink of collapse': Hillsborough County prosecutor requests $500K budget increase

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 21. 2018 8:22PM
Assistant County Attorney Andy Ouellette, top, takes his seat as the courtroom fills for afternoon arraignments in Hillsborough Superior Court in Manchester on Thursday, April 19, 2018. (David Lane/Union Leader)


Hillsborough County's top prosecutor has asked for a budget increase of nearly $500,000, money he said is needed to hire more prosecutors, victim-witness advocates and support staff to rescue a "department on the brink of collapse."

Hillsborough County Attorney Dennis Hogan used the ominous words - seldom seen in the dry world of budget spreadsheets - to highlight the difficulty of retaining staff amid the heavy caseloads of one of the busiest prosecutorial offices in the state.

Hogan, a Republican, wants his budget increased 19 percent, to $5.47 million.

His office - the only one in the state to cover two superior courts - has lost 25 percent of its prosecutors in each of the last two years, he said. A key reason is workload, he said.

Hogan said his office is unable to recruit and train staff quickly enough to keep up with the attrition. As a result, police departments in the county don't get all the attention and training they need, he said.

The Hillsborough County Attorney's office lacks the technology to keep up with the demands of the court system, which compounds staffing issues.

Hogan subtitled his PowerPoint pitch "Budget Request for a Department on the Brink of Collapse."

"To use a baseball analogy, we are on the warning track, we have not run into the wall. That is why I am giving warning," Hogan wrote in an email.

The county attorney said the drug epidemic fuels an increase in crime, arrests and prosecutions. 

"The drug misuse leads to more bad behavior like violence, which includes sex crimes, all the varieties of thefts, and poor driving with its large range of problems from unlicensed driving to deaths," he said.

Manchester police did not respond to a request for comment on this story. Nashua Police Chief Andrew Lavoie said he did not want to comment on Hogan's dire assessment or budget request.

Two weeks ago, Hillsborough County officials began their budget approval process, a lengthy endeavor that includes review by several boards before state representatives from Hillsborough County meet to approve a budget in late June.

In an initial budget review with Hogan, county commissioners kept two new prosecutors, a new victim witness advocate and a new legal secretary, but provided only $1 for two other prosecutors, telling Hogan he could fund them with savings.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Toni Pappas, R-Manchester, said total budget requests for Hillsborough County add up to a 13 percent increase.

"We're going to be decreasing (the budget) as much as we can. The taxpayers are our biggest concern, so we're going to be reducing the numbers," Pappas said. 

She noted that Hogan received a double-digit percentage increase last year, which was supposed to go toward new staff.

Hogan said other factors have put pressure on his prosecutors. Felonies First, the reorganization of the arraignment system, increased his office's caseload by 400 cases in the first six months of its operation, he said.

According to Hogan's PowerPoint, Felonies First has resulted in unmanageable deadlines and has forced prosecutors to spend more time in court for hearings. Victims require more time because their trauma is more recent, and legal secretaries have more work because they have to provide discovery materials to defense lawyers on an incremental basis.

Additional pressures come from drug courts, Right-to-Know requests, violations of probation, criminal annulments and post-trial motions and hearings, the county attorney said.

In total, Hogan wants to add five new prosecutors to his staff, three victim witness advocates and five legal secretaries. He also wants to increase salaries to remain competitive, increase supervision and mentoring, and update technology.

Technology upgrades include scanners and a server that would allow secretaries to email and upload documents.

According to Hogan's presentation, Hillsborough County prosecutors average 130 cases a year, compared to about 90 in Rockingham and Merrimack counties.

Hogan also provided data that shows the total cost per case falling from $2,044 in 2011 to $1,290 in 2016, the last year he provided.
Courts lack drug abuse resources, too
It’s not only prosecutors who complain about a lack of resources in Hillsborough County.
Last week, at a Concord panel discussion on the legal system’s response to the opioid crisis in New Hampshire, a Superior Court judge said the services available to help offenders with addiction issues can vary widely from county to county.

Judge Jacalyn Colburn said that in Hillsborough County, where she sits, “My menu is very limited.”

Hosted by the University of New Hampshire Law School and the state bar association, the program focused on how drug and family courts deal with offenders with substance abuse issues.

Audriana Mekula-Hanson of Concord, who will graduate from the law school next month and start work as a prosecutor, asked the panelists, “What alternative sentencing would you suggest that I can provide for the defendants who don’t meet the qualifications for drug court but certainly have a drug-addiction problem?”

In some counties, Colburn replied, “You have a fairly broad menu of options” for low-level offenders with substance-use disorders. But, she said, “For the largest county in the state, with the two largest cities — and presumably the highest number of (overdose) deaths again this year just like the last three years — my menu options are very thin.”

There are no court diversion programs or pre-trial services, Colburn said.

Tina Nadeau, chief justice of the Superior Court, said ideally, all offenders should have risk/need assessments done so they can be provided the appropriate services.

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