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Mahoning County allows justice to slip behind times



Published: Wed, May 2, 2007 @ 12:00 a.m.



It's long been accepted that justice delayed is justice denied -- the phrase has its roots in the Magna Carta. But 800 years later, we in Mahoning County are also learning that justice delayed is not only unfair, it is expensive.

Every day that a criminal defendant sits in jail awaiting trial, Mahoning County taxpayers shell out about 70. And some defendants have been waiting a long time. The most dramatic case -- scandalous might be a better word -- involves a man who has been awaiting trial for murder since December 2003. By the time his trial begins in June, his incarceration will have cost the county more than 85,000.

Clearly, this is wrong. And a series of stories in The Vindicator this week made it clear that it is unnecessary.

Finger-pointing

Fingers have been pointed among judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys as to why cases have fallen well off the schedule prescribed by the Ohio Supreme Court. The court considers a criminal case delinquent if it stretches beyond six months.

Mahoning County, with a population of 257,555, has 322 backlogged cases. Compare that, for instance, with Cuyahoga County, which has five times as many people and nearly 14 times as many new cases a year, yet has a backlog of 581.

Each of Mahoning County's five common pleas judges has varying explanations for why there are case backlogs and suggestions for attacking the problem.

The bottom line, however, is that the situation is inexcusable and intolerable.

The Mahoning County courts are not being asked to do the impossible, and the proof lies just to our west, in Stark County.

As one of the stories by Peter H. Milliken reported, Stark County has slightly more people, the same number of judges, very close to the same number of cases assigned to each judge, and yet, at the end of 2006, when Mahoning County had 322 criminal cases lingering past the six-month mark, Stark County had none. None.

Even allowing for the contention that Mahoning County has a more complicated caseload than Stark County, doesn't explain the difference between 322 and zero.

Study results

Last year, the Mahoning County Criminal Justice Working Group asked the state Supreme Court to conduct a study of the case flow in Mahoning County. Last month, Atty. Stephanie E. Hess, manager of the court's case management section, gave her verdict. She found that most of the courts were trying to work within a flawed, undisciplined system that results in an inefficient use of time by judges, their staffs, lawyers on both sides and parties to the cases.

Milliken's reporting showed some of those same weaknesses and provided the contrast between a well-functioning neighboring court system and a system here that is flirting with dysfunction.

The time for explanations is past. There are no excuses.

Mahoning County's judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys have one thing in common: They are professionals. Professionals do not punch time clocks. They work extra days and extra hours until they get the job done.

The work of Mahoning County's courts has fallen behind schedule. It is the responsibility of the judges to do whatever is necessary to get the docket up to date.

The Supreme Court will be watching. We'll be watching. But, most importantly, the taxpayers will be watching.




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