The gavel may soon come down hard on the way business is done in Hood River County Circuit Court.
The biggest blow is slated to fall on lower income defendants since the state fund used to hire court-appointed attorneys is facing a $10.3 million shortfall.
Seventh Judicial District Judge Paul Crowley said that deficit could cause the prosecution of some cases to be delayed from March 1 until after July 1, the beginning of the new budget cycle.
Jack Morris, Hood River County’s primary defense contractor, said that these four-month deferrals are unfair to the accused, who will have to endure the stress of not having a speedy resolution, particularly if they are innocent.
“The Constitution does not say that you’re entitled to a lawyer whenever we get around to it,” he said. “If we don’t have the money to prosecute cases then they ought to be dismissed because delays of up to six months are ridiculous.”
The cases scheduled for postponement starting on March 1 include most domestic violence matters, drug offenses — including delivery and manufacturing of controlled substances — and DUII charges. Then in May, many juvenile cases will fall under the same time delay.
“The indigent defense fund has had the greatest percentage of cuts in the state. It is an easy target because it has no natural constituency,” said Crowley, the presiding judge in Hood River, Wasco, Sherman, Wheeler and Gilliam counties.
He said there was a slight reprieve in the suspension of non-person misdemeanor offenses, such as DWS and shoplifting, that was expected to start this week when the deficit stood at $15.3 million. That action was staved off when the legislative emergency board came up with $5 million in funding. Crowley said another $5.1 million could be offset if voters approve Measure 28 on Jan. 28, enacting a three-year increase in the maximum state income tax rate which will raise it from 9 percent to 9.5 percent. However, he and other court officials are unsure how the final third of the equation will be worked out since legislators are struggling with an anticipated $1.4 billion deficit in the upcoming 2003-05 budget.
“No matter what happens, the indigent defense fund is still going to be short, the best case scenario is that it is short $5.2 million and the worst case is that it is going to be all $10.3 million,” said Crowley.
The Oregon Judicial Department is also struggling to cope with the loss of $3.6 million in its current operating budget. To offset that reduction, court offices throughout the state will be closed for business on Fridays and the nine staff members in Hood River, as well as their peers, will have their work lowered to 36 hours, a District payroll reduction of about 10 percent.
Chuck Wall, Seventh District court administrator, said although state officials have stated plans to restore the lost hours after July 1, it is likely that ongoing budget problems will force a continuation of the reduced work schedule or an elimination of personnel altogether.
Crowley said Friday has traditionally been used in Hood River court to “clean up” small claims and traffic cases and hear motions on both civil and criminal actions that could not be fit into the arraignment schedule or worked around trial times. In 2001, he and other judges handled a total of 7,548 cases, almost 5,500 of which were traffic and wildlife violations. During that same year, $410,000 from the indigent defense fund was spent to help defendants in 1,167 cases, according to state statistics.
In addition to a buildup of matters that will be created by the lost court day, Crowley said the docket will be crowded with deferred litigation in July.
“Even with the most careful of planning and the greatest of cooperation, it will take at least 18 months to untangle the rat’s nest,” said Crowley. “In the meantime, in many cases, the ability to do justice will be compromised.”
In addition to the problematic workload, Crowley said trial delays will bring other problems to both prosecutors and defense attorneys. For example, he said that over time the memories of both victims and witnesses fade and it may be harder to gain insightful testimony. He also said many times in assault cases the aggressor is remorseful immediately after committing the action but becomes less cooperative as time goes on.
Morris said that his office, like that of many defense attorneys, will face a “pretty serious” revenue loss over the four months of funding suspensions. However, he and many other lawyers will make up that loss by retaining more private cases and then will have to figure out how to juggle a crowded caseload after indigent defense funds are restored.
Civil and private trials will still take place during the suspended funding period and all cases currently in the system will be finalized as scheduled, according to Crowley.
Wall said the District has already met a budget crunch in 2001 by not replacing two vacancies and reducing three employees to part-time status.
“We have taken cost cutting steps and the judicial system continued to work, and to work well, in this District,” said Crowley. “If cut further, however, things will change. At that point, the ultimate questions will be how much and for how long.”
He said citizens must make individual decisions about their vote on Measure 28 but, like all choices, it should be made with a complete understanding of the potential consequences.