Cost of justice

SHERIDAN — The economic crunch is fueling tensions between city and county relations over how to best deal with judicial obligations. While both entities have endured cutbacks, questions are bubbling up as to whether the current operating plan is the best solution for these lean times.

Some county employees have started to share a sentiment that the city of Sheridan is diverting too much of its workload and economic responsibility to county and state agencies. The bulk of complaints are coming from the intersection of city and county criminal prosecution efforts.

In a 2011 policy shift described by Sheridan Police Chief Richard Adriaens as a cooperative effort, city police began directing a number of criminal charges into circuit, rather than municipal, court. Adriaens said the diversion of criminal cases to the court met administrative and logistical needs at the time. Search warrants had become required to take blood samples from suspected drunk drivers who refused the breathalyzer and a “single point of entry” policy was set up for juvenile offenders entering the justice system.  Adriaens said incidents that result in multiple charges are also sent to circuit court to prevent the accused person from having to appear in more than one courtroom.

The outcome of the new policy has become a point of contention between the two governments.

Sheridan County Attorney Matt Redle said the policy shift has created a lopsided method of operation that’s left circuit court prosecutors and clerks drowning in small-time offenses.  While Adriaens claims only multiple-charge incidents are diverted away from municipal court, Redle said he’s seeing many cases that could be appropriately handled by the city’s court system.

Redle added that the redirection of criminal prosecution traffic was not a “before-the-fact” conversation, but rather an exercise of discretion to which the chief of police is entitled.

“Lumping them together so people don’t have to go to two different courts makes sense where they’re charged with two different offenses,” Redle said. “That’s not what’s happening.

“What’s happening is all the traffic tickets that carry the potential of a jail term are going to circuit court, regardless of whether we have another case with that individual or not.  It has created a huge increase in the workload for the one clerk they have that does traffic in the circuit court.

“Those cases shifted to circuit court, but the plan doesn’t’ have more personnel resources built-in for processing those cases,” Redle said, indicating that the state had denied a request for another court clerk even before the onset of the economic recession.

Figures from the county attorney’s office show that in 2011, the office handled 343 misdemeanor charges that originated from charges made from the Sheridan Police

Department.  In 2012, that number jumped to 581. In the first six months of the 2013 calendar year, the office has already been assigned 288 cases from the Sheridan police alone.

The result, Redle said, is less time for county prosecutors to devote to more serious criminal offenses.

One clerk of circuit court gave notice of resignation last week, and cited the crushing workload as a primarily reason for leaving.

 

Justice Office on the Rocks

Sheridan County Justice Office Administrator Neal Madson said his department has shouldered more work as well.  His department oversees the juvenile justice system, including probation and other forms of rehabilitation.

“The circuit court had 51 cases of (Minors in Possession) in 2011.  In 2012, that went up to 243,” he said.

Madson said so far this year,  circuit court has processed 117 MIPs  through the end of July.

As a result, Madson said a minor’s wait for a day in court is getting too long to be effective, especially for repeat offenders.

“If kids violate their probation, you’re looking at extended periods of time before they return to court,” he said. “The younger kids can’t always tie back really distinctly to why they’re even there.  A lot of things happen when you have a big span of time.  They might be doing a lot better or a lot worse, and when they go into court and it’s not closely attached to the act, then they start to develop resentment and anger and confusion.”

Redle and Madson recognize keeping kids out of court in favor of rehabilitation programs is the way to go to handle young offenders, but the challenge lies in pulling together the resources for creative solutions that are truly rehabilitative.

While local juvenile justice proceedings may seem to have a single public face, there are more than a dozen entities that contribute to official reactionary measures of juvenile crime. Major players include the Department of Family services, schools, Volunteers of America and prosecutors and courts at local, county and state levels who contribute unique services to the juvenile justice toolbox.

“It’s a crazy patchwork we have to try and deal with juveniles,” Sheridan Mayor Dave Kinskey said.

“We are focused on how we can best improve the safety for our citizens with the resources we have,” he said, adding that for the city of Sheridan, that means leaving the court system and probation and parole services to the state, which has far more resources available.

Currently, representatives from the agencies meet weekly to decipher the most appropriate course of redress for crimes committed by youth.

Often, Redle said, any court proceedings, even minor offenses like a teenager’s parking violation, are directed toward circuit court.

“There’s been discussion for years about the state’s need to create a juvenile court system,” Kinskey said.  “Perhaps now is the time for that to happen.”

 

Material World, Prison Nation

In addition to the intangible consequences of a flooded court system, Madson said other programs handled by his department, including drug court and some probation services, are in danger of being entirely extinguished or curtailed to inefficient lengths due to lack of funding.

The joint city/county juvenile justice program relies on Optional One-Cent Sales Tax for its operations.  Madson said up until fiscal year 2008-2009, each entity contributed $170,000 to the Juvenile Justice Joint Powers Board.  In 2010, the city of Sheridan committed to contribute $130,000 annually toward the Juvenile Justice Joint Powers Board via a resolution of the City Council, but failed to meet that mark the next year, and chipped in only 128,250. During fiscal year 2010-2011, the contribution again dropped to $115,700 for the 2011-2012 . During the last fiscal year the city gave only $109,915.

The county has been making up the difference.

“We’ve had to go into reserve funding this last year and if things remain the same through this next fiscal year, we’ll have to look at cutting programs and figuring out what we’re going to do financially because we’re not going to be able to maintain where we’re at,” Madson said.

Sheridan County Commissioner Tom Ringley is the county’s representative on the JJJPD, and he said the county’s youth rehabilitation program is hanging by a thread.

“City of Sheridan funding has declined approximately 35 percent from fiscal year 2010-2011 to fiscal year 2013-2014,” Ringley said. “This is alarming, especially when for the same period an average of 76 percent of the clients served by the juvenile justice program were city of Sheridan residents. In contrast, Sheridan County has not wavered in its commitment to the program and has kept its funding level steady.”

Kinskey said the diversion of cases from municipal court and the funding shortfalls toward the JJJPB are two of many symptoms of the fact the city’s pockets are inside out.

“We have been through, and are still in the midst of, the worse recession since the Great Depression,” Kinskey said.

“With revenues down by 30-35 percent, including in the One-Cent collections, the city council opted to make across-the-board cuts to all recipients, whether they were not-for-profits, joint powers boards,  or even the city’s own funding categories. Everybody took the same haircut,” he added.

Kinskey said a good deal of court costs and probation services must be passed along. The alternative, he said, is to do nothing at all.

“Incarceration for a juvenile is $195 a day.  If a judge were to sentence 12 juveniles to three months each — that’s one a month — you’re up to $214,000,” Kinskey said.  “That’s a budget buster.  That alone indicates the needs of the juvenile justice system and the justice system far outstrip the resources that are available to the city of Sheridan.”

Kinskey pointed out skyrocketing legal costs aren’t a problem unique to Sheridan.

“The feds, state and local governments are all dealing with what is a runaway train of costs for the court systems, and for probation, parole and prison,” Kinskey said. “Those expenses devastate budgets nationwide.  It’s an issue we’re going through not only in Sheridan, but they’re going through it everywhere.”

Kinskey said budget cuts have been painful for all, and pointed out the city has had to lay off employees and pay has been frozen, but he commended the workers who have learned to do more with less and still provide basic city services.

Kinskey said he is committed to juvenile justice.

“We have put our hearts and souls into finding a better way to deal with problems and deliver services in the midst of crashing budgets,” Kinskey said.

“Every group listed in the One-Cent is important. They all have important needs. This isn’t just about juvenile justice, but the needs of all of them, and unfortunately, we cannot make everybody whole,” Kinskey said, adding it’s impractical to pick just one group and entirely restore its budget when funding is restricted.

“How do you choose who gets cut?” Kinskey asked. “Our option was to not choose, but to have everyone learn to deal with the pain. Given, it’s a terrible downturn.

“The answer is you have to find new ways to approach the issues and you’ve got to prioritize. The big crimes need to be dealt with firmly, and then we may not be able to deal with the smaller offenses as thoroughly as we have in the past,” he added.

Adriaens emphasized the value proactive police work has in cutting costs further down the road. He cited programs including the Tipsy Taxi and TIPS programs as preventative tools to reduce alcohol-related offenses and violent crime.

Kinskey said, “Commitment is not measured by the size of your budget or the number of your employees.  Commitment is measured by the results you get with the budget you’ve got.”

 

Change is Coming

This week, the Sheridan County Attorney’s Office announced the office will begin to use more discretion in which cases it chooses to accept.

“My move  in doing that is to say the cost shifting is causing problems,” Redle said.

“The big thing is we’re not telling them not to send the cases up,” he said. “What we’re telling them is they may receive the case back because we may have made the reason judgement that the municipal court is appropriate and can adequately handle the case.”

“There are going to be some where they may see that routinely done,” Redle said, citing examples of no seatbeltt, careless driving or breach of peace tickets that are not tied to other, more significant charges.

Redle said circuit court will still handle DUIs and the more complex juvenile cases.

Redle said he hopes this week’s policy change will be a catalyst to reestablishing a more livable balance within the relationship of law enforcement, prosecution and rehabilitation efforts.

City and county officials agree the contribution of each entity can not easily be reduced to a singular financial benchmark or manpower task. The city pays for the dispatch center. The county pays for the jail. The city polices a majority of the people in the county while the county prosecutes.  Examples abound that show each side has a full commitment to the community as a whole, and its not the job of either agency to tell the other how to manage its respective pocketbook or how to spread limited resources in a down economy.

“My theory is the taxpayer doesn’t care which pocket his money is coming out of,” Adriaens said.  “I try to reduce costs for everybody.”

“We need to come together and establish results that help the community as a whole. Separating ourselves doesn’t accomplish anything.  We need to work together,” Adriaens said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About

Tracee Davis

Tracee Davis joined the staff at The Sheridan Press in July of 2013. She covers business, energy and public safety. Tracee grew up in Kemmerer and has lived in several locations both in the U.S. and overseas. Her journalism training stems from her military service.

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