The Hood River Circuit Court docket is crowded with a backlog of cases caused by a state funding deficit earlier this year.
From March 1 to July 1, Oregon courts were unable to pay attorney fees for lower income defendents. In Hood River that left prosecutors unable to pursue charges against suspects in 79 cases. In limbo were most burglary, drug, forgery, theft, fraud and other Class C felonies.
Hood River District Attorney John Sewell expects that some of these individuals will not show up for their appointed day in court. That will force his office not only to add the processing of delayed cases to the regular workload, but spend even more time to pursue arrest warrants.
Jack Morris, who holds the prime contract as a court-appointed attorney in Hood River, has brought several new staffers onboard to deal with the added volume of clientele.
“There’s going to be a bulge in the pipe line for the next few months, but we’ve got a pretty well-functioning court system so we should be able to get through this,” said Morris.
He said Hood River’s legal authorities maintain a high level of professionalism that has kept operations running smoothly through the recent challenge. One of the agreed-upon mitigation measures has been to convene court on Wednesday mornings to process more arraignments.
“This whole situation (state budget) hasn’t made a lot of sense, but we have some very competent people working at this courthouse that are trying to overcome all of these obstacles,” Morris said.
In March, a $10.3 million shortfall in the state court system budget halted the appointment of attorneys for suspects unable to pay their own legal fees. Although arrests were still made and formal charges filed, defendents were given a return court date and the proceedings came to a standstill. In addition, court offices closed on Friday during the four-month period to make up for an additional loss of $3.6 million in the Oregon Judicial Department’s operating budget.
Chuck Wall, administrator for the Seventh Judicial District which encompasses Hood River County, said the nine employees in his office have returned to a full work schedule.
However, he said more funding cuts could be coming as the Oregon Legislature struggles to finalize its 2003-05 biennium budget.
He is unsure how any cuts will play out but is determined to keep the local court system running as efficiently as possible.
“We’re living day-to-day and watching our pennies so that we don’t make any expenditures until we know what level we’re going to be funded at,” Wall said.