Plea agreements could ease Olmsted District Court logjam
By Janice Gregorson
Post-Bulletin, Rochester MN
Resolving cases through plea agreements would be one way to ease the logjam of cases in the court system in Olmsted County.
Because of the number of defendants demanding a speedy trial, meaning within 60 days, court officials are worried that there aren’t enough court resources to meet demand.
Court Administrator Chuck Kjos is hopeful that many of the speedy trial cases will be resolved through plea agreements at the final pre-trial conference, held the Thursday before each two-week trial calendar begins.
"Many will settle at the pre-trial stage. It normally plays itself out,’’ Kjos said. But still officials have to be prepared to deal with the problem.
Bill Wright, managing attorney in Olmsted County for the public defenders office, isn’t so optimistic. He agrees that a percentage will always settle, but said these cases tend to be more serious and have higher stakes.
"The settlement offers (from the prosecutor) aren’t as good,’’ he said.
Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem said settlement offers have been made in all of the cases, and said the added pressure of the numerous speedy trial demands will not influence his staff to offer softer plea agreement offers. Ostrem said if judges decide to run several trials simultaneously "we can ramp it up on our end,’’ and try all the cases.
If cases aren’t resolved prior to trial, the public defenders office will be asking judges to modify conditions of release for defendants, or release them without bail, Wright said.
Wright said he has been talking with Ostrem about some strategies to help ease the situation; then they will go to the judges. One option is to delay normal hearings in some other criminal matters in other to prepare for these trials.
Because of a budget deficit and workforce reduction, Olmsted District Court is running only six courtrooms daily, not its usual seven, Kjos said. Bringing in one or more retired judges to run more trials at the same time isn’t an option because it takes five support staff to put a judge in a courtroom, and he simply doesn’t have the manpower.
Kjos said dealing with the crunch may mean reducing or delaying court hearings in the civil calendar. The problem is that many hearings can’t be delayed because of state mandates and strict timelines that must be followed. Those include cases involving termination of parental rights, cases involving child protection issues and many juvenile criminal matters.
"These are hard decisions right now. We are just trying to contain things,’’ Kjos said.
District Judge Debra Jacobson, who is the administrative judge for Olmsted County this year, declined to comment.
Six judges are chambered in Olmsted County. Kjos said the caseload has steadily increased over the years, but not the number of judges. They hear everything from family cases to civil cases to matters involving juveniles to criminal cases.
Kjos said in the past year, there has been a big increase in the number of serious criminal cases, such as drive-by shootings and homicides. All of those take more attorney and court time than other felony cases.
Olmsted County is part of the Third Judicial District of southeastern Minnesota. It is the largest county in the district. In February, the district announced it was faced with a $300,000 budget deficit for the current fiscal year which ended June 20, and a $1.1 million deficit for fiscal 2009. Changes were made that included layoffs, consolidating court administrator positions, imposing a hiring freeze and reducing public service hours.
Kjos said he is down 7 1/2 positions — or 18 percent — in staff.
In addition to shortening public service window hours to give staff more time to keep up with such things as court filings and document processing, some of the Olmsted court work has been shifted to other counties.
All of the county’s payable petty misdemeanors have been transferred to Dodge County to be entered; and new conciliation claims are going to Fillmore County to be opened, Kjos said. Houston County staff is handling all of the Olmsted County default judgments, which amount to about 1,000 annually.
Once a month, a retired judge is brought in to take over the morning first appearance and afternoon arraignment calendar. That judge also handles jail arraignments for the day. That frees up the Olmsted County judge on the Courtroom 1 rotation to be able to work in chambers on cases he or she has under advisement in order to get rulings out within required time frame. The county judge then also spends two to three hours at what is described as the "signing" basket, reviewing things such as new criminal complaints that need to be signed by a judge.
Kjos said there is nothing on the horizon to indicate the crunch will change in the next 2 1/2 years, given district and state budget projections.
In September, the Minnesota Judicial Council, the administrative governing body for the state’s trial and appellate courts, agreed to submit a $54 million request for additional funding for the 2010-2011 biennium.
The council said the money is needed to avoid deep staff cuts that will lead to reduction in public services, long delays in case processing and cutting such things as drug courts. Statewide, the Judicial Branch is operating with a $19 million budget shortfall. The Judicial Council said that if additional funding it not obtained, an estimated 261 additional positions would have to be cut.