BRENTWOOD – The two candidates for Rockingham County attorney were recently grilled on racial inequity within the criminal justice system via a questionnaire by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire.
The ACLU sent questionnaires to all county attorney candidates across the state ahead of the upcoming election, where they queried the candidates on systemic racism, the disproportionate incarceration of people of color, police reform, decriminalization of sex work, poverty and homelessness.
“Prosecutors in New Hampshire have the power to continue disproportionately flooding jails and prisons – but they also have the power to champion and enact criminal legal reform,” said Joseph Lascaze, smart justice organizer at the ACLU of New Hampshire, in a statement. “It is imperative that county attorneys in the Granite State acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in our criminal legal system and explain how they will pursue justice for all to the people of New Hampshire.”
The ACLU asserts that the most powerful person in the criminal justice system is a local county attorney, because they decide who is charged, the severity of those charges, or if any charges are filed.
In Rockingham County, Republican incumbent Patricia Conway is being challenged by Democrat Steven Briden. Conway, of Salem, was elected Rockingham County Attorney in 2014, and Briden, of Exeter, currently serves as the Deputy County Attorney for Carroll County.
Asked if they believe systemic racism in the criminal legal system in New Hampshire is real, Conway responded, “I believe that some people in our society may be predisposed to racism based on how that person was raised and what that particular person has been exposed to while on this earth. Thus, it is possible that that there are people working in the criminal justice system that are racist. As the Rockingham County Attorney, I work hard to ensure that all people involved in the criminal justice system are treated fairly and justly regardless of the person’s race.”
Briden answered, “I believe that systemic racism is present across American society generally, therefore any government structure is going to have issues with systemic racism and bigotry. New Hampshire has serious systemic issues regarding wealth inequality, and access to housing, to child care, to a quality education. Ultimately those issues are significant drivers of criminal conduct in some of the most frequently seen criminal offenses. These issues of inequality are at their worst in the most diverse areas of New Hampshire, which I believe drives some of the disparate outcomes for people of color.”
The ACLU asked what role prosecutors have played in the disproportionate incarceration of people of color in New Hampshire.
Recent data reported by the Concord Monitor showed Black individuals make up 1.7% of the state’s population, but represent 7% of the prison and jail population. Hispanic individuals make up 4% of the state’s population, but represent 7% of the prison and jail population.
“At the Rockingham County Attorney’s Office, we do not consider a person’s race and/or color when determining the appropriate charge or sentence for a particular defendant,” Conway said. “My prosecutors are trained to consider the facts of the case, the defendant’s criminal history, the defendant’s background (such as substance use disorder, mental health issues and/or past trauma) as well as the victim’s injuries and input when determining the appropriate and just charge and sentence. We work tremendously hard to do the right thing for the community in every case.”
Conway said she will “continue to train the employees in my office on the subject of racism.”
Briden said, “The statistics show that people of color are incarcerated at disproportionate rates, and while judges have the final say in sentencing, prosecutors directly impact incarceration rates. Prosecutors have an incredible amount of discretion in sentencing, so if there are issues of disproportionate incarceration, prosecutors must share in the blame for that.”
Briden said if elected, he will require his prosecutors “take part in mandatory implicit bias trainings.”
The ACLU also asked if the candidates believe incarceration solves issues of drug use, poverty or homelessness.
Conway said incarceration, “in and of itself,” does not solve these issues. Though the state prison and Rockingham County jail offer “very good substance use disorder treatment programs,” she said, “eventually all inmates are released into our community.”
“If inmates or defendants do not have a stable place to live, continued treatment and the support of our community, sadly they will not succeed in living a sober, happy and productive life,” Conway said. “As county attorney I support and will continue to support transitional housing. Transitional housing will offer our inmates a safe, sober and supportive environment to continue in their rehabilitation. The Rockingham County commissioners and superintendent of the House of Corrections are all supportive of transitional housing. As a team, the commissioners, superintendent and myself are working on making transitional housing an option for inmates in Rockingham County.”
Briden said he does not believe in “criminalizing poverty or homelessness in any way.”
For example, Briden said he does not support panhandling laws, and believes “that our communities would be much better off if we invested money in providing assistance to those in poverty and housing to those in need as opposed to spending money to enforce these laws and ordinances and to incarcerate individuals who simply have nowhere to live.”
“As county attorney, I would instruct my attorneys to place a major focus on rehabilitation and treatment, as opposed to any punitive sentences when it comes to issues of substance abuse,” Briden said. “We would make sure that our diversion program is utilized to its fullest potential to redirect people out of court and into treatment and rehabilitation programs.”
For the candidates’ full responses, visit aclu-nh.org/countyattorney.