Pierce County Superior Court, which has struggled for three years to reduce a backlog of cases clogging the local justice system, will plug a budget hole this year by reducing the number of weeks it calls in jurors for trials.
Presiding Judge Bryan Chushcoff called the plan distasteful but said the court has little choice.
The only other way it could have balanced its budget would have been to close the highly touted drug court for the rest of the year and risk losing the federal funding that keeps the program running, Chushcoff said last week.
“It’s a trade-off,” he said. “It was a very difficult thing to do.”
Some in the local legal community, including the president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association and Prosecutor Mark Lindquist, called the plan to assign no new jury trials for five weeks shortsighted.
They also complained that they weren’t consulted before the judges made the decision.
“The criminal case backlog impacts all involved (victims, those charged and the families on all sides),” bar president Scott Candoo wrote in a May 21 letter to Chushcoff and the court’s executive committee.
“Eliminating valuable jury trial time further impacts those in custody and exacerbates the speedy trial issues those individuals face. Civil juries, already endangered, will be threatened with extinction.”
Candoo asked that the decision be reversed.
“The deprivation of jury trials is central to a lot of our members,” Candoo said in an interview last week. “We’re trying to have a voice in this process.”
A reversal is not likely, nor is involving outside parties in budget decisions, Chushcoff said last week.
“We can’t see any other reasonable way to accomplish all these goals,” he said.
‘LITTLE’ DISCRETIONARY FUNDS
Superior Court judges met in April to decide how to cut about $400,000 from their $14 million annual budget to meet demands from county leaders scrambling for savings in the down economy.
Chushcoff said the court’s executive committee slashed as much as it could by reducing hours, implementing work furloughs, reducing the number of people served by drug court and eliminating other administrative costs.
There is still as much as $60,000 to find and not much left to target, he said.
“There’s very little in our budget that’s discretionary,” Chushcoff said.
Judges then began to look at the drug court program – which they’d already reduced by 18 percent – for more cuts.
The program gives substance abusers accused of small-time drug-or alcohol-related crimes the option of avoiding jail and a felony record by completing treatment and other court-ordered requirements.
Studies have shown the program, which has operated in Pierce County since 1994, to be an effective and cost-saving alternative to jail in preventing relapses and further crimes.
Shuttering drug court for the balance of the year would have made up the rest of the Superior Court’s budget shortfall but would have jeopardized the program, Chushcoff said.
The program is funded with about $325,000 in county money, a roughly equal amount of federal grants and $150,000 in fees charged to participants.
Future grants would be in jeopardy if the county closed drug court, he said, and the county cannot afford to pay for the program without federal help. That was unacceptable, Chushcoff said, so the judges sought other options.
Reducing the number of jurors they call in for trials seemed like the next best idea, he said.
The county spends nearly $1.2 million a year to summon in about 12,000 jurors to decide felony criminal and civil cases. That money pays for postage, juror reimbursement for mileage and other costs.
A majority of judges decided it made the most sense to trim the number of jurors summoned between now and the end of the year by not assigning jury trials for five weeks, Chushcoff said.
They picked weeks with historically low numbers of jury trials: the last two weeks of December, the week of Thanksgiving, a week in August and the week of the July Fourth holiday.
Many lawyers and judges historically schedule vacations during those times, Chushcoff said.
“We really don’t think it’s going to be too bad,” he said.
It is unclear how many trials will be postponed by the move. Last year, Superior Court juries heard 198 criminal and 32 civil cases, according to state court records.
The courts will not be dark during those weeks. Bench trials – in which a judge decides the case – will be held, Chushcoff said.
That will benefit people waiting to have their divorce cases tried, among others. Most family law cases are decided by bench trial if not settled outside court.
“The court is still going to be working,” Chushcoff said.
WHAT CRITICS SAY
Some people say the plan will hurt efforts to reduce the number of felony criminal cases languishing in the system.
At the end of April, the backlog of felony cases was about 1,600. That’s down from 2,400 cases in September 2007 but still short of the goal of 1,500 called for in the 2010 budget. Some have called for an ultimate goal of 1,200 cases.
Reducing the number of jury trials this year won’t help attain that goal, Lindquist said.
Lindquist maintains having trial courts available prompts defendants to plead guilty earlier in the process, which helps clear out cases and improve access to justice.
“This is not a step in the right direction,” he said.
County Councilman Dick Muri, who in the past has criticized the way Superior Court operates, called the plan “nonsensical.” He has complained that the backlog costs the county millions of additional dollars in jail costs.
“You don’t cut back on services when there’s a backlog,” Muri said last week. “Don’t they know what the backlog does to the jail costs?”
Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644