States reconsider drastic court cutbacks

After delaying or even nixing some trials, New Hampshire and Oregon restore funds.

Later this fall, a courthouse fixture will return to Rockingham County that's been missing for several months: jurors.

Budget cuts forced New Hampshire's courts to eliminate jury trials this summer. Cases piled up, from assaults to construction disputes, and some victims had second thoughts about testifying after such a long delay.

In Oregon, another state that has enacted some of the harshest court budget cuts in the US, property crimes like shoplifting and arson went unpunished for four months this year, allowing criminals to go free.

After watching parts of their justice system slow to a crawl, both New Hampshire and Oregon are restoring funds.

"It's a realization that this is an infrastructure issue," says Daniel Hall, vice president of the National Center for State Courts. "The courts have to be able to provide fair and expeditious justice."

Widespread problems

In the past two years, state courts across the country have been forced to swallow some of the deepest budget cuts in decades. Criminal defendants and parties in civil suits alike soon felt the results: layoffs of everyone from prosecutors to court interpreters, higher filing fees, and less money for public defenders.

But in a few states, the cuts impacted a swath of the public who had never even entered a courthouse. Take Oregon and its four-month standstill in prosecuting most crimes against property. "When people actually saw criminals go free, that caused quite a ripple in the public," says Charlie Williamson, president of the Oregon state bar association. "People felt the courts were crippled."

One Clackamas County, Ore., car thief was arrested - and released - three times in four days. Another was arrested 17 times before finally being prosecuted.

The prospect of a similar crisis helped New Hampshire judges and legislatures reach a budget compromise last month. Legislatures gave judges the flexibility to find other ways to save money besides eliminating courthouse staff and axing jury trials.

"They were concerned about what the impact would be of reducing the jury trials and layoffs, and how that would affect services to constituents," says New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice Joseph Nadeau, who negotiated with legislators.

Instead of eliminating jury trials for five months next year as planned, New Hampshire's busiest courts will conduct jury trials 11 out of 12 months - the most in three years.

It wasn't a completely happy ending, however: New Hampshire judges still have to find ways to save money, unlike in Oregon, where legislators restored the state's courts to their previous funding level.

Nonetheless, the resolution was welcome news here in Rockingham County, where the court's four judges have been postponing the court's typical caseload of 10 jury trials a month. Those trials account for less than 5 percent of the court's total business but are a big chunk of commercial lawsuits and serious criminal charges.

No jury trials meant business owners in southern New Hampshire's commercial hub, Portsmouth, had to wait months longer to resolve construction disputes or industrial accidents.

Delays in criminal prosecutions angered victims, some of whom reneged on testifying. "Sometimes they say, 'What's the point?' " says Stephanie Meyers of the Rockingham County Prosecutor's victim witness-assistance program. "They develop an apathetic attitude. They feel no one cares."

County prosecutor Jim Reams feared his office would have to release six defendants held on drug, theft, and forgery charges under interstate custody agreements that require a trial within 180 days. "It makes the system stupid when the people's business can't be handled in an expeditious manner," he says. "The ultimate irony is the people rewarded are those who violated the law and may never have to answer for it because the system can't prosecute them fast enough."

Still, Mr. Reams says his office will face the near impossible challenge of packing 600 backlogged cases into seven weeks of trials. "For the remainder of the year, it's a disaster for us," he says. "We are three months behind where we typically would be."

In Ohio and Alabama

In many parts of the country, the situation is getting even worse. Jurors in Portage County, Ohio, are being asked to give up their $15-per-day stipend as a way to save $10,000 next year. Meanwhile, Alabama is laying off dozens of prosecutors and postponing jury trials after voters rejected a referendum approving higher taxes.

Observers say there is at least one potential silver lining as cases get postponed: Long delays can induce civil litigants to resolve disputes outside the courts.

But judges argue any such benefits don't outweigh the long-term damage to the justice system's reputation. "There is a misperception that if the courthouse is closed, judges aren't working," says Judge Nadeau. "Justice delayed is justice denied. Our whole premise is to try to avoid delays, and everything that contributes to a delay is troublesome for us."

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