Judicial leaders warn system can't sustain current demands

Published: Jun. 6, 2014 at 2:17 AM CDT
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Madison County's population, and population of criminals, have grown steeply while the county's...
Madison County's population, and population of criminals, have grown steeply while the county's bench of circuit and district judges has barely grown at all.

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Alabama lawmakers promised more action to help overloaded courts as judges and their staffs in fast-growing counties such as Madison County struggled to keep up. Judicial leaders warned the system isn't up to the demands being put on it.

"We haven't reached the critical point yet, but we're close," cautioned Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.

The office of the state's Administrative Office of Courts reports the county courts of Madison County, along with Mobile, Tuscaloosa and Baldwin Counties, are the most overloaded in the state, and far exceed the state's formulas for caseloads for their number of judges.

Madison County's population, and population of criminals, have grown steeply while the county's bench of circuit and district judges has barely grown at all.

"When I started out in 1995, my first criminal docket, Judge Page, who was my predecessor, set 35 cases for me," recalled Circuit Judge Jim Smith. "At the peak, I had over 200. That's a one-week docket. It went from 35 to 200."

Smith, who retired in 2012, now works as a "Supernumerary" circuit judge, hearing cases with no pay for himself to alleviate some of the load on Madison County's seven circuit judges.

"It's been sort of frantic in having just enough in the day to keep up with all the criminal files," said Smith, grabbing a thick file among many waiting on his desk. "This is one docket of youthful offenders, for example. There's just a large volume of criminal cases."

Justice Moore said the problem exists across the state and has gotten worse as financial constraints have dragged court budgets below "level funding" year in and year out.

"From 2001  to 2014, now we've lost approximately 30 million dollars," said Moore. "If we had gotten what we did the previous year plus any mandated expenses, we would be at $214 million, which is $30 million more than we actually get today. So that's how much we've lost during that time. Now how do you compensate for that? Well, you lose people. We've lost 305 personnel."

See a PDF-format chart documenting appropriations vs. employees.

Moore said the shortfalls have already created backlogs in the administration of justice.

"As you delay trials, it affects the people of Alabama," he said. "As you close courthouses or clerks' offices to catch up on work, it affects the people of Alabama."

"Greater delays in the administration of justice," agreed Smith. "And I think that justice delayed is often justice denied."

Smith said holdups in getting criminal cases before a judge can result in protracted jail stays for defendants who shouldn't be behind bars at all.

"We've found some people who've gotten caught in the system for long periods of time," he said. "There were a few people who had been here (in the Madison County Jail ) for example.  Let's say they had a fairly minor charge, but they failed to make a court appearance and they had not had a lawyer because of missing a court appearance to get a lawyer appointed.  So they were in jail without a lawyer, and they might have been there a year, just sitting with nothing happening with anything on their case."

Such long-term unnecessary detentions create an additional expense for taxpayers, an issue with which Madison County's commission, sheriff's department and courts have all struggled.

County leaders have long expressed concern that, while far from overcrowded, the Madison County Jail ends up unnecessarily housing, feeding and providing medical care for hundreds of inmates who could have been moved through the system or released on probation or bond.

"Every 100 people that we can reduce the jail population by saves several million dollars," said Smith.

The Madison County Commission, courts and the sheriff's department have been working to reduce the county's jail population by speeding up the processing of criminal cases and moving suspects and defendants onto alternative tracks that don't necessarily involve keeping them in custody.

Judge Smith's unpaid work has been part of that effort, which has already reduced the jail population enough to save the county some $3 million a year.

State lawmakers promised to work towards improving resources for overtaxed local court systems, possibly by reallocating judgeships from counties that are markedly less busy.

"You know Jefferson County has lost a tremendous amount of population in recent years," noted Decatur State Senator Arthur Orr.  "However the number of judges that it has assigned to it is based on years ago population figures, whereas Madison County has exploded in population.

"So you would see Jefferson as a place where you need to pull, perhaps, the finding for a judgeship, and it's about $500,000  for a circuit court judge, about $400,000 for a district court judge," Orr continued. "Pull the funding there, and the judgeship, to move and reallocate to a place like Madison County or Mobile County."

On a limited basis, Jefferson County judges have already helped process some cases, and Orr predicted that in the next legislative session, he would seek more permanent solutions such as redrawing some judicial district lines to put more judges where they're most needed, a process he acknowledged could become contentious.

'Well, everything unfortunately can end up in a big fight  but it's certainly something where, if we're going to use the resources that the people of Alabama give us wisely, we're going to have to make some hard decisions like that and really put the judges where the needs are, as opposed to just continuing on because that's just the way it's always been," said Orr.

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