April 22, 2003 Indianapolis Star Article

Clogged Court Dockets Cause Backup in Jail

April 22, 2003
By Amy L. Webb
April 22, 2003
The Marion County criminal justice system has too few courtrooms. Too few judges. Not enough public defenders. An antiquated computer system.
And too many people crammed into the Marion County Jail. Most of them are just waiting to move through the county's bottlenecked courts.
The clogged court system is a primary reason for overcrowding in the jail. More public defenders, courtrooms and judges would funnel people through the legal system faster, said Marion Superior Court Judge William Young.
Ultimately, that would free some of the 1,000 inmates who have not been convicted of charges and are just waiting in the jail for a trial date.
A federal court judge may free inmates even sooner.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker may order the courts to release inmates, or she could fine the county for contempt of a 1975 court order requiring humane jail conditions.
To be sure, Marion County's jammed courts mirror those in many large metropolitan areas. Todd H. Barton, California Superior Court chief executive officer and a former assistant court administrator in Lake County, said such heavy caseloads are common.
"But in Indiana, judges are killing themselves just to get through the day," he said.
Marion County judges handle about 27,000 cases a year, according to the Marion County Justice Agency. The county's 38 courts are divided into civil and criminal divisions and are operated by 32 elected judges. Of those, 21 judges, magistrates and commissioners preside in criminal hearings.
The county court in Hennepin County, Minn., which serves Minneapolis and has approximately the same population as Marion County, has 73 courts, with 44 judges, magistrates and commissioners presiding in criminal cases.
In addition to the judge shortage, an 18-year-old computer system, called JUSTIS, makes it difficult to get cases through the system quickly. A defendant may have several charges pending at once, but judges have no easy way of knowing about pending cases outside their courts.
The Indianapolis Star has learned that no one can identify the type of offenders in jail at any given time, and no one has a clear picture of a defendant's pending charges.
"I've seen as many as seven or nine open pending cases (for one person) in a system, which means that many different trial dates," said Marion Superior Court Judge Mark Stoner.
"The county is asking us to be accurate and efficient, and we're still working off the original system prototype," Stoner said. "We still have court reporters handwriting forms."
It was a hand-written form that resulted in the release earlier this month of Currie O'Bryant, who was sentenced to 115 years in prison for attempted murder. The clerk checked off a "d" for days instead of "y" for years on the form, and the man was released after Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson signed the paperwork. He is still at large.
Melinda Haag, director of the Marion County Justice Agency, said some changes are being made. A new computer system is being installed statewide.
The software for that system was bought by the state for $7 million. It will consolidate all of an offender's records into one file, giving judges access to information that includes what kind of offenders are in the jail, the length of their sentences and which judges have heard their cases.
"We're implementing a new statewide system that will eventually give the judges, police department and jail complete and accurate records on everyone arrested, but for right now, we're stuck," Haag said.
When the project will be completed in Marion County is still unclear, she said.
Meanwhile, the Sheriff's Department and several judges are working to release as many inmates as possible before Wednesday's meeting with Barker without compromising public safety.
That task is difficult when there is no systemwide database to categorize offenders by the risk they pose to the community.
"Safety is an issue for victims of crime," said Laura Berry, executive director of the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Victims are in risk of further danger if the perpetrator blames him or her. You can't just release people without making it unsafe for victims."
On April 13, the county released 110 inmates to decrease the record-high population. Even so, 1,576 men and women still filled jail space designed for 1,130.
Although many of those released are still required to appear in court, 25 percent may not show up, Haag said. Missed court dates are common among the accused and their lawyers.
"Our ability to provide services are limited because of resources," said Melissa Rae Campbell, an assistant public defender who handles 80 to 100 cases at a time. "Sometimes public defenders double-book; sometimes they forget because of busy schedules."
Marion County established the public defender agency in 1993 to provide legal representation for the indigent. Before that, judges hired public defenders independently to serve in their courtrooms.
But the agency doesn't have the money to hire enough lawyers, said David Cook, Marion County chief public defender.
The Public Defender Agency has an annual budget of $7.5 million. Assistant public defenders make about $30,000 a year, Cook said. The low salary does little to retain attorneys.
More than one-fourth of the assistant public defenders quit each year, Cook said. "We lose people quickly. Then we have to train a new lawyer, and he'll have to ask for a continuance on all his cases until he gets acclimated to the job."
"The average case is needlessly extended, people wind up in jail far longer than necessary, and the jail gets more crowded."
Deputy prosecutors carry heavy caseloads, too, in part because high conviction rates keep the prosecutor -- who is elected -- in office, Barton said.
"What should I do, not pursue cases just because the jail is overcrowded? No," said Douglas J. Purdy, who handles 300 cases at a time as a deputy prosecuting attorney. "You can't fail to do justice for any reason. I don't want to be cruel, but if it's a matter of people sleeping shoulder to shoulder, then so be it."
Even getting a court date can be challenging. "Just because someone is in jail waiting doesn't mean a court's calendar will magically open up, or that the prosecutor and public defender will be able to schedule time to do the case," said Marshelle Broadwell, a public defender.
"With the few courtrooms and judges in Marion County, it should be no surprise that a case would have to wait a month or more to be heard."
Judges have the discretion to release an offender to a treatment program, set a reasonable bond so the defendant can get out of jail, or send the arrested person to jail.
To set bond, judges and bond commissioners follow a bond matrix, set by the state, which functions like a credit report to decide if and at what amount to set an offender's bond.
The matrix evaluates the type of crime, number of prior offenses and criminal history. But many judges will set the bond as high as possible to make sure offenders come to the hearing -- even if it means the person remains in jail, Young said.
"When people fail to appear, they congest the system with more and more cases, which then means congesting the jail."

Amy L. Webb
Indianapolis Star