County Attorney Saffo strives for public safety

by Laura Bryn Sisson | 11/30/10 11:00pm

Grafton County Attorney Lara Saffo first became interested in the justice system as a child. Saffo a member of the College-Town Task Force on Alcohol attended a school that many other students were forced to attend by court-orders, she said in an interview with The Dartmouth.

Saffo was re-elected Deputy County Attorney in November, a position to which both political parties nominated her. As county attorney, Saffo has the responsibility of prosecuting all felonies in Grafton County except for murders. Grafton County includes Hanover and Lebanon, and both Dartmouth College and Plymouth State University lie within its jurisdiction.

"The job of a county attorney is always public safety," Saffo said. "That is first and foremost in our mind."

But many students following the announcement of non-suspended sting operations against Greek houses and after felony charges were brought against a number of Greek organizations for serving to minors have criticized the town for what students consider a change in the relationship between the town and Greek organizations.

During her tenure as county attorney, Saffo said, she hopes to address sexual assault, both at the College and elsewhere in the county. In college and law school, Saffo worked at domestic violence shelters and took on cases representing victims of childhood sexual abuse while working as a civil attorney at Van Dorn and Curtiss.

Several initiatives are underway in the county to improve public safety, Saffo said. These include a new Sexual Assault Resource Chain, an interview center for child abuse victims and a mental health court to provide sentencing alternatives for the mentally ill.

"Every county attorney comes with goals and hopes to make things even better," Saffo said.

Saffo praised the successes of her predecessor, former county attorney Ricardo St. Hilaire, particularly for setting up the Grafton County Drug Court, which provides sentencing alternatives and rehabilitation to convicted drug abusers.

For the past five years, Saffo has been the Violence Against Women Act prosecutor in Grafton County, specializing in sexual assault cases.

Although she said binge drinking and sexual assault are interrelated, Saffo acknowledged that "there is certainly binge drinking without sexual assault."

"As [she is] chief law enforcement officer, we're all in good hands," Edward Van Dorn, Saffo's former employer, said in an interview. "She has a fair, well-honed sense of justice. She's balanced, but she can be aggressive when she has to be, and also knows when she doesn't have to be."

Van Dorn recalled a particular case in which Saffo then eight months pregnant represented a young woman who had been sexually assaulted at the boarding school she attended.

"The major private law firm that represented the board of [the] school was hard nosed, vitriolic, strident," he said. "They sensed that Lara was a new attorney, so for the parts of the case she was handling, they went after her hammer and tongs, accused her of ethical violations and impugned her character at every chance. She took it beautifully in stride, didn't counter attack and had enough self-awareness to know the accusations were utter nonsense. A lot of young attorneys would just collapse under an attack like that."

David Spalding, chief of staff for College President Jim Yong Kim and a member of the task force, called Saffo "a good collaborator."

"I think it's very important we put our students' safety first [and] limit impediments to [Good Samaritan] calls made," he said. "I'm concerned prosecutions could lead students to think for an extra moment."

Spalding said he recognizes that Saffo's position makes the enforcement of N.H. laws one of her primary concerns.

"I think the ideal would be that the Greek system is serving alcohol in a way safe for anyone participating in the house," he said. "The ideal is safe, good times in the fraternities and sororities."

The task force which was created in the spring by the Student and Presidential Alcohol Harm Reduction Committee and includes both College and town representatives is developing and suggesting solutions to excessive alcohol consumption, according to Town Manager Julia Griffin, who is also co-leader of the task force. She co-leads the task force with acting Dean of the College Sylvia Spears.

Saffo said she could not comment on any current cases, including those against College Greek organizations.

"Technically, Hanover Police doesn't tend to get called until things are very serious, so unfortunately we see only the very worst cases," Griffin said.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity was charged with one felony count of providing alcohol to a minor on Oct. 6, as a result of a Good Sam call from their physical plant, The Dartmouth previously reported.

Saffo said, however, that the Good Sam policy had no basis in the legal system and that the Hanover Police Department had a legal duty to enforce the laws of the state.

Griffin called law enforcement a "last recourse," saying that the police department could only affect "about 5 percent" of the problem, and that the rest depended on student and College initiatives to reduce student harm caused by drinking.

Saffo also said she felt that solutions to excessive drinking needed to come from the student body.

"A lot of it has to come from what the students want to do, and I think the Dartmouth student population will do that, in a very positive way," she said. "They need to find alternatives to binge drinking, which they are already doing."

The College does "a very good job" advising students about the dangers of alcohol and its connections to sexual assault, she said.

The task force has changed the procedure for underage students arrested for the possession of alcohol, Griffin said.

While first-time offenders used to receive a summons to appear in court, and then would be offered the Alcohol Diversions program as an alternative to standard legal ramifications, first-time offenders are now given the opportunity to enroll in Diversions first, Griffin said. The change is a "less frightening approach" to first encounters with the legal system, Griffin said.

The task force is currently reviewing Diversions to ensure it does not replicate the College's alcohol education programs, according to Griffin. Although there is a fairly low recidivism rate for students who complete Diversions, some students repeat their offenses, she said.

"That's discouraging," Griffin said. "Every time, we think, Darn, we lost that opportunity to change that student's mind.'"

The task force is currently attempting to compose a list of "comparable institutions" from whose safety programs the College and town could learn, according to Griffin. Such institutions must be in states with alcohol possession by consumption laws and must have no police force specifically for the campus, she said.

The College is not an undue drain on Hanover Police Department resources at present, Griffin said.

"It's a significant portion of police department time on campus, but the College pays property taxes, unlike nonprofit state universities," she said. "So one could argue [the College] funds public works."

Saffo has been actively involved with the task force and has taken charge of a subdivision on sexual assault, which has produced an informational DVD, according to Griffin.

"We seek her advice all the time," Griffin said.