Questions and Answers with Bob Thompson – Overloaded Court System and Limited Funding for Justice System Services

Justice Equity: What is the cause of the overloaded court system in Johnson County, Iowa?

Bob Thompson: The Judicial Branch is funded by the State, and the State is seriously underfunding the Judicial branch, DCS, and the Public Defenders. I suspect that if this situation could be remedied, the jail population would drop substantially; unless they actually like the non-compliance with case processing times mandated by Iowa Code.

“The Iowa Code requires that trials commence within six months (approximately 26 weeks) for indictable crimes. In FY 2012 there were 45 individuals charged with indictable offenses that had been in jail waiting trial for 26 to 100 weeks.” [Source: “Time to correct underlying causes of jail overcrowding,” Press Citizen, 31 March 2013, by John Neff]

In fact, John Neff recently completed a study demonstrating the radical effect that timely case processing would have on the jail population; it would drop by a third:

“It is possible determine what would happen to jail bed usage if the length of stay were capped. In this numerical study to see how much bed use could be reduced the length of stay for misdemeanours was capped at eight weeks and for felonies twenty six weeks. The data used for this illustration were taken from jail booking records for FY 2012. The offence classes were all felonies, all misdemeanors and combined court and corrections infractions. The offence types were alcohol (public intoxication and OWI), drug, other (all motor vehicle, public order and miscellaneous charges) and traditional. Traditional offences have been considered to be crimes for thousands of years in societies all over the world and their common feature is they involve acts that harm others. In this study traditional offences include: larceny, fraud, assault, burglary, arson, robbery, rape, kidnapping and homicide. Court infractions include contempt, violation of a court order and failure to appear/pay. Corrections infractions are parole and probation violations but they could have been the result of an arrest on a new charge.” [Source: “‘What If’ We Capped Length of Stay?,” JCO-Justice.com, 22 March 2013]

Space alone cannot solve a problem created by a severe imbalance between criminal justice system input and output. The best answer to how the Justice Center would solve this in any tiny way was recently discussed by the CJCC: Basically, we are entitled to get one more judge if we have a place to put him/her (another courtroom and office, I assume).

Personally, at this point I’d ask for proof that this is the only way to get another judge, before believing that this is anything other than a campaign promise. I won’t argue the need for more space for the court system, but that alone is not going to fix this at all.

Will we get more Clerk of Court staff? How is one more judge going to improve case processing without increasing other staff? (Or reducing the overall caseload, of course) Where’s the budget for that? They are clearly swamped. JoCo is switching to electronic filing later this year, that may improve efficiency, but I doubt it can remedy this significantly. The BoS is apparently unaware that this is even a problem; if they did, I’d assume they would have mentioned increased state funding for these agencies in their Legislative Priorities. They didn’t.