MAHONING COMMON PLEAS COURT Supreme Court division to make recommendations
The division's services are free, but its suggestions may come with a price.
By DEBORA SHAULIS
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Decreasing the caseload in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court may require anything from simply changing a form to creating judgeships.
"Everything is fair game," says Douglas Stephens, director of Supreme Court of Ohio's Judicial & amp; Court Services Division, which is reviewing common pleas court operations and will make recommendations later this year.
The Judicial & amp; Court Services Division offers technical and logistical help to court administrations, provides statistical reports and oversees judge assignments. Its services are being used in Mahoning County as leaders continue to respond to a successful class-action lawsuit by county jail inmates. A federal judge ruled last year that jail operations were unconstitutional.
Two consultants with National Institute of Corrections who performed a local justice system assessment in December wrote that the common pleas caseload is "very high and there is no clear understanding as to why this is occurring." The backlog contributes to longer jails stays for some inmates, which is more costly to the county.
"We all see that there is a problem in the system per se, and we need to solve the problem," said Judge Maureen A. Sweeney of common pleas court, who is co-chairwoman of the county's criminal justice working group that discusses jail issues.
The county is seeking the Supreme Court office's advice on case management, use of technology and staffing, Judge Sweeney said.
Case management is the starting point, Stephens said.A case management specialist from Judicial & amp; Courts Services has met with all common pleas judges and most Youngstown Municipal Court judges, Stephens said. The city uses the county's jail to house inmates.
The specialist is now working with Bob Regula, common pleas court administrator, to learn how court cases are processed here. The specialist also will confer with the judges, clerk of courts and common pleas court assignment office before any advice is offered, Stephens said.
If there's a common problem among court operations, Stephens said it's that "courts and staff get so overwhelmed with cases coming in the front door" that they don't have time to analyze their efficiency.
Changes can begin with simple things, such as the composition of court forms and routing of paperwork. Whittling down the common pleas court caseload also may require a visiting judge to be assigned here temporarily, or new judgeships to be established, Stephens said. If his office makes that determination, it will issue a recommendation to Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer, he added.
The division's services are free, but its suggestions may come with costs. "When we make recommendations, we'll be very sensitive to the fact that funding is an issue," Stephens said. "There are ways to get around that, ways to find funds," including federal grants that often are available for technology upgrades.
Many elected officials with different personalities need to be consulted in this process, but Judicial & amp; Court Services Division has an advantage of bringing a "calming, neutral approach" to problem-solving, Stephens said.
The Judicial & amp; Court Services Division made recommendations to Youngstown Municipal Court about 10 years ago, Stephens said, and recently completed a major evaluation of Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court.
Stephens said his office's work here began in February and could last for a year. Some recommendations may be ready by early June, he said.
Meanwhile, the criminal justice working group has a May 1 deadline to make its final report to the special master who's overseeing jail operations.
Judge Sweeney said the group doesn't plan to dissolve after that date and has discussed the recruitment of new participants, such as Jason Whitehead, secretary to Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams.
"We're looking to get everyone who has a stake in this involved" so that when the group speaks, people will be receptive to its message, Judge Sweeney said.