Ninth Judicial District’s caseload is high
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – At times, prosecutors can be seen pushing a bulky, two-tiered cart packed with up to eight boxes full of files into courtrooms at the Garfield County Courthouse.That’s a rare sight on a typical criminal court docket day in the 9th Judicial District. Often the first 30 minutes or more are spent rescheduling defendants’ court appearances to later dates. A public defender sometimes calls out the names of defendants they can’t find, or haven’t yet met.As elsewhere in the state, the caseload is high and rising by all accounts. Legal time constraints give criminal matters precedence over civil cases, which can be bumped back for long periods of time as a result.”The judges are very busy,” said Chief Judge James Boyd.The 9th Judicial District covers Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties.Boyd said the three district judges handled around 2,668 cases filed in district court last year for the three counties. In 1995 about 800 civil cases were filed in Garfield County, compared to about 1,400 last year.
The increasing caseload is one reason the Colorado Legislature approved a new district judge position likely to be added in July. The district hasn’t been able to add a new district judge since the early 1970s, Boyd added.”The high caseload and the limited number of judicial officers we have to handle that caseload does, as a general proposition, tend to lengthen the time from the time a case is filed until it is closed,” he said.Boyd estimated maybe four out of five civil matters are resolved within an 18-month state standard. But when they’re not, sometimes a senior judge can come in to assist with a case that’s had scheduling troubles.Local attorney Kathy Goudy said jury trials for civil cases are normally scheduled 18 months out or longer and could still get bumped back after that.”The impact has been – I can’t even describe it on the civil dockets,” she said.One side effect of increasing oil and gas development in western Garfield County and Rio Blanco County seems to be an increase in disagreements about real estate and industry issues that can result in more complex litigation than a typical civil case, Boyd said.Chief Probation Officer Shawnee Barnes said the district’s probation officers are above a state average for workload values. But she believes many probation officers in districts around the state go way beyond it.
Most would agree that growing population causes an increased caseload, but some feel District Attorney Martin Beeson’s style has contributed to the larger caseload. The thought is that tougher plea-bargaining styles and rigid policies make cases take up more time and resources by going to trial more or proceeding as felonies instead of getting disposed of as misdemeanors. “The caseload is ultimately, in terms of trials, determined by the DA,” said attorney Tom Silverman. “They can have as many trials as they want, or as few trials as they want. It’s a question of how do they resolve the issue of wanting to prosecute people for everything that’s listed in the charges and trying to be able to keep a docket that allows them to try each case within the six months of speedy trial.””The backlog I think is on a six-month setting in felony court, largely because of disposition policies, that I’ve seen anyways, hardening up since Martin’s been in office,” said attorney Walter Brown.”This DA’s office has given less discretion to their deputy DAs, certainly on cases like DUIs, more than any other DA since I’ve been here,” Silverman said. “What happens is when you get strict guidelines and you don’t allow flexibility for the deputies, cases start to stack up because there’s no bargain in the plea bargain.”Silverman said that if law enforcement agencies are completely satisfied with the DA’s office, it means the office isn’t exercising the type of discretion it should.”My sense of it is certainly that,” he said. “They’re out there trying to make the police happy at a level that makes you worry. You want the check and balance.”Attorney Ted Hess said, “When you see their day-to-day activity, they just have the damnedest time saying no to the police. … They live in fear of being criticized by the police.”Goudy said, “One of the problems is that they accept the police reports for the initial charging and everything said in them without further investigation.”She thought investigators were tied up doing work in cases going to trial and couldn’t do more work on evaluating decisions about filing charges.Someone in the probation department who asked to not be identified said the office has 11 sex offender cases pending when normally it would see less than four. The person said it does not reflect the increase in sex crimes and didn’t know why more cases were being prosecuted.Brown agreed it does not reflect an increase in sex offenses being committed. He added that harsher treatment of sex offense cases and cases with law enforcement as alleged victims can have a strong effect on caseload since they can carry mandatory sentencing guidelines.
Beeson said that the caseload is caused by a growing population. If critics aren’t claiming his office is manufacturing false cases, he said, he questions why anyone wouldn’t want actual crimes prosecuted as directed by the law.”Anywhere you have an increase in population you’re going to have an increase in crime,” he said.Due to several factors, including the booming energy industry, population in Garfield and Rio Blanco counties is increasing dramatically.Caseloads have generally risen at a fairly steady rate of about 4-7 percent a year with the increase in population, Beeson said.Asked about the allegedly harsh policies or failure to check on police reports increasing the caseload, Beeson said the comments were nonsense. It’s easy to hurl generalized criticisms and ignore the fact that law enforcement and prosecutors have limited resources, he said. He noted his office has two investigators for 17 law enforcement agencies in the district. He doubted those making critical comments are concerned with prudent use of resources and said attorneys probably just want their criminal clients not to get felony convictions regardless of truth and justice.”This office does not make the laws,” he said. “We look at the conduct of the criminal, we compare that conduct with the law and the statutory elements of crimes, and then we charge what is statutorily appropriate. If a criminal or his/her attorney doesn’t like the fact that the conduct fits a certain crime, then they can take it up with the state legislature and try to get the law changed.”Despite the critics, four attorneys who left Beeson’s office disagreed with defense attorneys’ comments about plea-bargaining policies being too rigid and said they only left for higher pay and a lower cost of living (See related story).Scott Turner said he took a job in Colorado Springs where he would make more money. He said caseloads are going up across the state, but especially here with the area’s influx of population.”He would give me discretion and trusted my opinion,” he said. “I left under good circumstance and the reason for leaving had nothing to do with Martin or the office.”Russ Wasley said, “I think Martin Beeson is a wonderful DA, and I think that the 9th Judicial District is very lucky to have him. … Martin gave me a high degree of discretion and a high degree of independence.”Pamela Mucklow said the office’s plea-bargaining style is very lenient and she disagrees with the defense attorneys’ comments.”I don’t think the defense attorneys are people who should pass final judgment on plea agreements, right?” she said. “They’re always interested in getting the most lenient plea agreements possible.”Contact Pete Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org
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