What's the solution? Answers vary
Mahoning County's backlog of old criminal cases worsened last year.
By PETER H. MILLIKEN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Justice moves slowly in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.
In legal terms, the slowness is beyond a reasonable doubt.
But getting officials to agree on a solution -- well, that seems to be beyond a reasonable agreement.
Judge R. Scott Krichbaum and County Commissioner John McNally said judges should strive to limit postponements of trials.
Administrative Judge Maureen A. Sweeney, Judge James C. Evans and County Prosecutor Paul Gains favor adding a sixth general division common pleas trial judge to speed up the docket.
Judge John M. Durkin proposes hiring a second mediator to settle civil cases without a trial.
Others say poor pay -- nearly the worst in Ohio -- for court-appointed defense attorneys slows cases.
And so on and so on ...
Ask a court official and you'll get as many solutions as the number of folks you talk to.
Mahoning County had the fourth worst backlog of the state's 88 counties in 2005 as measured by the number of criminal cases older than six months. For 2005, the most recent year for statewide statistics, Mahoning County's five common pleas trial judges, who make up the court's general division, had 322 criminal cases pending beyond the Ohio Supreme Court's six-month guideline.
That number grew to 359 in 2006 -- about 37 percent of the caseload.
An Ohio Supreme Court rule says all criminal cases shall be tried within six months of arraignment, but the high court imposes no penalties or sanctions for noncompliance.
The judges differed widely in their progress, or lack thereof, in disposing of cases. Here's each judge's six-month load at the end of 2006:
Judge R. Scott Krichbaum had 12 criminal cases pending beyond six months;
Judge Maureen A. Cronin had 43;
Judge Maureen A. Sweeney, 70;
Judge James C. Evans, 112;
Judge John M. Durkin, 122.
A snapshot into the dilemma is easily shown in the opinions of Gains and Sweeney.
Gains said he'd like to see all criminal cases tried within six months.
"I have suggested that the common pleas courts give us two weeks' notice that 'this trial is definitely going' and we'll be ready to go," Gains said. With two prosecutors in each courtroom, Gains said his office can dispose of two criminal cases per week in each of the five common pleas trial courtrooms. "Whenever there are subpoenas issued, we're prepared to go to trial," Gains said.
But Sweeney pointed back at Gains.
"There's a docket. [The prosecutor's office] should be prepared for every case that's on that docket," she replied. "He's got the staff. Let's get two cases going every week. Why should I tell him which cases are important? That's his job. He's the prosecutor."
Or you can look at the disparity of thought between Krichbaum and the court scheduler.
Robert Regula, common pleas court administrator, said his office doubles up the trial schedule in a courtroom to ensure that criminal cases are set for trial within 90 days of the suspect's arrest. "It's something we have to do to make sure that we're safe in protecting speedy-trial rights," he explained. If one defendant pleads guilty rather than going to trial, this practice allows an alternative case to go to trial, he added.
But Krichbaum, the court's presiding judge, won't have it that way in his courtroom.
"I do not allow two cases to be set at the same time, ever. Individual cases deserve individual attention," he said. "I tell [the lawyers] which case is going to go and when it's going to go, and make sure that both the prosecutor and the defense have adequate time to competently prepare. As a judge, I also need time to prepare for a particular case," he added.
A consultant from the Ohio Supreme Court endorsed Krichbaum's approach in a recent review of the Mahoning County Common Pleas Court's general division.
"Establishing firm and credible trial dates is essential," wrote Atty. Stephanie E. Hess, manager of the top court's case management section.
Hess decried what she called a "cattle call'' scheduling system, which she said increases postponements of trials due to unpreparedness of parties, who aren't certain which case is actually going to trial at the scheduled time. Hess' study, performed at no cost to the county, was requested by the Mahoning County Criminal Justice Working Group, a group of county officials studying ways to improve the county's criminal justice system. Her study focused on ways to ease the common pleas court case backlog and thereby reduce jail crowding.
Across Ohio, the success varies for other courts to adhere to the six-month rule.
For the year ending 2005, Stark County had no criminal cases older than six months; there were 581 in Cuyahoga County, 453 in Franklin County, 370 in Lorain County, 70 in Trumbull County and 53 in Columbiana County.
Krichbaum said it's difficult to compare one county with another.
"Because of the tremendous number of violent criminal cases we have in our community, they're probably, on average, more serious than criminal cases in other communities," Krichbaum said, adding that more serious cases take longer to process.
"Quality should never be confused with quantity. Anybody can get a lot of work done, but the quality of work is something that all of us should demand," he said.
On a per-judge basis, Mahoning County's 2005 new caseload actually comes off lighter than some Ohio counties.
Mahoning County filed 1,326 cases per judge. That compares with 1,432 in Butler County, 1,643 in Cuyahoga County, 1,690 in Franklin County, 1,444 in Lorain County, 1,799 in Summit County and 1,304 in Stark County.
Sweeney said it's unfair to compare counties without thoroughly analyzing the types of cases that predominate on their dockets.
"A foreclosure case would go a lot faster than a criminal case. A [medical] malpractice case is going to take two weeks to try" due to the large number of expert witnesses, she said.
Factors in backlogs
Durkin, the judge with the greatest backlog, said his challenge is due to his having about 100 cases pending in drug court, where cases typically take 15 months to resolve. Charges can be dismissed against defendants who successfully complete the treatment program. Durkin also said he has four time-consuming death penalty murder cases before him.
Evans said his backlog is due in part to postponements of criminal trials he believes he must allow to ensure defendants' rights to due process.
"You have to set trials, but it's a fallacy that you're setting the trial because you know you can't proceed. There are just so many of them," he said.
Today's criminal cases tend to be more complex than those of the past, often with multiple defendants, multiple victims and more serious charges, said Atty. John Shultz, a criminal defense lawyer and past president of the Mahoning County Bar Association.
"Right now, the system is overwhelmed" with the number of civil and criminal cases having quadrupled here in the last 15 years, said Shultz, who has practiced law for 30 years. "For the limited amount of personnel we have here, these judges are doing their damn best to move these cases along."
Sees limits as essential
Krichbaum said time limits are key to solving the backlog.
He demands punctuality and preparedness among all parties in a case, and he said almost all hearings in his court produce some kind of result toward resolution. He allows lawyers sufficient time to prepare for trial, but allows postponements "only when absolutely necessary and justified to my satisfaction," he said.
He proposed these limits for each stage of a criminal case:
Three weeks from someone's arrest on a felony charge to the preliminary hearing in county or municipal court.
Three weeks from bind-over from municipal or county court to grand jury indictment.
Two weeks from indictment to common pleas court arraignment.
Six months between common pleas court arraignment and trial.
10 days from sentencing to transfer from county jail to the state penitentiary.
Durkin said an overhaul of the system is needed.
"The criminal defense bar, the bar association, the courts and the prosecutor need to sit down and revisit the manner in which these cases are processed to benefit everyone," Durkin said.
Shultz said the criminal defense bar has been unfairly criticized.
"Criminal defense attorneys have big caseloads themselves. If we're engaged in a trial in one court, obviously we cannot be in two places at once and try another case simultaneously," he said. Sometimes a defense lawyer receives the packet of evidence from the prosecution "at a late date," and the defense needs time to analyze that, he said.
Gains said that there are relatively few lawyers who take court appointments to defend indigent people accused of violent crimes, and these few lawyers sometimes have case scheduling conflicts that necessitate postponements of cases. Mahoning County has no public defender's office.
Sweeney agreed with Gains concerning the shortage of court-appointed lawyers, and she added that Mahoning County's compensation for court-appointed lawyers is among the lowest in the state. "That's another factor that has to do with the backlog of cases," Sweeney said.
Only rural Highland County, which offers 35 an hour, pays less than Mahoning County's 40 per-hour in-court rate for felony cases. No Ohio county pays less than Mahoning County's 30-an-hour out-of-court rate for felony cases. The most generous jurisdiction is Fulton County, which pays 60 per hour for felony cases, either in or out of court, according to figures from the Ohio Public Defender's Office. At the low rates that prevail here, "You're going to have only so many attorneys that are going to take those court appointments because they can make more [money] doing other things," Sweeney said.