Courts Struggle To Stay Atop Avalanche Of Cases

Offials Try To Combat Rising Workloads And Falling Budgets

March 18, 1991|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff writer

Likening an increase in court caseloads to a wave that could crush the county's criminal justice system, Public Defender Alan R. Friedman has arranged a "summit" to search for answers.

"The system isn't breaking down yet, but there's a wave. And any surfer can tell you, there are only a couple of places you can be when it comes in. I'd like to get on top of it and ride it rather than be crushed when the wave comes crashing down on top of us," Friedman said last week. "It's asituation where we just can't keep doingthings the same way and hopeto get by.

"We need to have everybody in the same room."

The county executive, two administrative judges, the county's Circuit Court clerk, the superintendent of the county detention center, the county sheriff and the county state's attorney are among those expected to attend today's meeting at the county courthouse. They will search for ways to contend with increasing workloads in a climate of frozen or trimmed budgets.

Friedman said he had to cut his budget by 3.5 percent and must cut his next budget by 4 percent. "The condition is tight, tight,tight -- with a capital T," he said.

Friedman, who was appointed public defender for the county last year, said increasing court caseloads and a growing county detention center population prompted his call for a summit. He said he is particularly concerned that more people are spending more time in the county detention center awaiting trial.

In some cases, he said, defendants can spend up to four months in the jail awaiting trial on a charge that typically carries a 30-day sentence.

"It's not fair to people who can't afford bail," Friedman said.

Richard Baker, the superintendent at the county detention center, said about 280 of the 480 inmates locked up last week were awaiting trial. He said he has not noted an increase in the number ofinmates being held awaiting trial, but he said more defendants are waiting longer to be tried in Circuit Court, where felony cases and jury trials are heard.

Friedman said a screening process should be established to identify those jailed while awaiting trial and put their cases on a "fast track."

County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said his office has been trying to expedite District Court trials for jailed defendants for about a year.

Other items on the agenda for today's meeting include a look at how heavy caseloads affect the quality of supervision by probation agents and Clerk of Court Mary M. Rose's plan to link government agencies -- and, perhaps, even private attorneys -- to the courthouse computer system.

Rose, who took office in December, said probation agents, prosecutors and public defenders should be able to tap into the system to check on schedulingand the status of cases. She said the procedure could be done inexpensively -- perhaps for as little as $10,000 -- and would reduce the amount of time clerks spend onthe phone answering questions about scheduling.

Issues such as computer system security, she said, would have to be addressed.

Rose also said her office may take on responsibility for scheduling criminal trials. The state's attorney's office now handles that duty, a practice seen as unfair by some defense attorneys.

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