LANCASTER — As Coos County scrambles to retain nursing home workers and keep the homes staffed at sufficient levels, the county’s top prosecutor is describing an increasing caseload in his sphere that he said is leaving his office overburdened and short-staffed.
“We’re swamped at the moment,” Coos County Attorney John McCormick said during a joint meeting of the Coos County Commission and County Delegation in Lancaster on Wednesday.
The number of criminal cases has only grown, making it difficult to find the time to focus on the most serious ones, he said.
And the office of three attorneys will soon be down to two.
McCormick said he wanted to inform the commissioners and delegates of the situation and in the future will be making a presentation for a likely funding request for additional staff in the next budget cycle.
He showed them a thick stack of file cards of cases that his office’s administrative assistant enters into the system.
“This is how many cases we’re backed up in terms of grand juries,” he said. “We have some serious work to do, but on top of that, we are trying to stay on top of the work we already have that is slated for trial. This month is going to be a trial month … We’re under the gun. Staffing issues are a problem … Things are not getting easier. We have a lot of work in terms of entering things. The filing is tremendous. Last year was a little bit off, but the caseload has doubled from what it was last year. We’re having a hard time staying on top of the amount of work that’s coming into that office.”
The county attorney’s office has two tracks of cases that come in.
One is an arrest and someone is being held or has been bailed by a bail commissioner.
“Those cases come in and we make a charging decision immediately or soon after in cases where they’re not being held,” said McCormick. “The other track is if a department does an investigation, usually a thorough investigation, that comes to us for review or presentation at the grand jury. Because we’re trying to stay on track of Track 1 arrest cases coming in, we’re neglecting Track 2, and those cases are oftentimes serious cases and they require a lot of review.”
Along with an uptick in felony cases being brought to his office, McCormick said the implementation in New Hampshire several years ago of “felonies first,” embedded into law to streamline the felony case process and send such cases to directly superior court (whereas before they would first be filed in district court before a transfer to superior court), is also having an impact.
While “felonies first” might have made things easier at the district court level, it has made it tougher on some county prosecutor offices, which are now receiving more cases earlier.
“This has been percolating since the ‘felonies first’ change,” said McCormick. “We did get an additional attorney at that time. I underestimated how bad this was going to be. It’s really created a tremendous amount of work, in my opinion.”
State Rep. Edith Tucker, D-Randolph, asked if staffing issues will necessitate the hiring of another attorney or an administrative assistant.
McCormick said he’s still reviewing what the specific need will be, but said it could be both.
“The main issue is staffing,” he said. “I know a lot of folks are dealing with this and I’m not the only one. I’m losing an attorney. When we were staffed up with attorneys, we were still falling behind.”
Assistant Coos County Attorney Alexander Speidel is set to depart after this week.
McCormick has already put out feelers to find anyone who might want to replace him.
“Are you waiting for next year’s budget or are you asking for special funds,” said state Rep. Robert Theberge, R-Berlin, the delegation chairman.
“I’m not asking for special funds,” said McCormick. “I just wanted to address the situation. There will be some sort of presentation, probably on additional funding for the next cycle.”
State Rep. Eamon Kelley, D-Berlin, asked McCormick if there’s any type of case his office is seeing more of.
“We’re seeing a lot of drug cases,” said McCormick. “Those cases tend to be the arrests, but they’re really bogging us down. Whenever you have an arrest, you have to get the affidavit tougher, you have to get the charges together, you’ve got to do the filing, then you have to do a bail order, and there will be a bail hearing and an arraignment if the person’s being held. We’re seeing a lot of drug possession cases. There’s definitely an uptick in that. Then we’re seeing all of the normal ones we usually see. The concern I have is some of these cases that are the bigger investigations, sex assaults and things like that, are not getting the attention that they need because we’re so bogged down on these other matters.”