Suspended Cases

District Attorney, defense united in worry over court delays

Two legal opponents are in agreement that full justice isn’t being served in Hood River County.

In a rare moment of unison, District Attorney John Sewell and Jack Morris, who holds the prime contract as a court-appointed attorney, expressed a high level of frustration last week. They both believe that local citizens are being shortchanged by state cutbacks in the Circuit Court budget.

“People are going to lose property and people are going to get hurt by individuals who should have been incarcerated but aren’t — I’ve been a prosecutor for 23 years and this is one of the most difficult periods I’ve ever had to confront,” Sewell said.

At issue is the current $10.3 million shortfall in the state court system that has temporarily suspended the appointment of attorneys for suspects unable to pay their own legal fees. The postponement of “indigent” cases began on March 1 and will continue until July 2, the beginning of the new budget cycle. Currently in limbo are most burglary, drug, forgery, theft, fraud and other Class C felony cases for non-person crimes.

Sewell and Morris cannot understand why “essential services” such as law enforcement are not consistently given top funding priority by the Legislature.

“Justice is supposed to be swift and sure and waiting four to five months down the road doesn’t make as much of an impression on someone as two to three days,” said Morris.

Although arrests are still being made and formal charges filed, Sewell predicts many “flight risk” defendants will fail to appear when their day in court does finally arrive.

“We can’t do anything about it. They (suspects) just get released with a warning to show up in July,” said Sewell.

For example, Deputy Prosecutor Shelley Webb began processing a case last week against a Umatilla resident who was arrested in Hood River for driving a stolen car and possessing an unlawful quantity of the cold medicine used to manufacture methamphetamine. That suspect had a long criminal history and was already in violation of a conditional release from another jail for pending theft and burglary charges.

“I go into court thinking this guy is not getting out of jail because he’s got several ‘Failures to Appear’ in his record — but he had to be let go because the court is not going to appoint his attorney until July,” Webb said.

Chuck Wall, administrator for the Seventh Judicial District which encompasses Hood River County, anticipates that processing paperwork for warrants against errant suspects will also increase the workload for his office later this summer. In addition, he said police officers will then have to take time away from other duties to track down wanted individuals.

“If they don’t show up then it becomes an expense for all of us,” Wall said.

But the added duties could be a problem for Wall since his staffers are no longer working on Fridays because of an additional loss of $3.6 million in the Oregon Judicial Department’s operating budget. Even when the new bieunnium budget is finalized, Wall is expecting a continuation of reduced working hours and possibly even some staffing layoffs.

“We just don’t know yet how bad it’s going to be,” he said.

Sewell said his office has been forced to lessen charges for at least 12 misdemeanor cases in recent weeks to reduce the “giant clog” that is now backing up in the court system. Neither Sewell, Morris or Wall can really anticipate how the scheduling of delayed cases will play out — but they are all anticipating problems. Wall said state statistics show that $410,000 was spent in Hood River from the state indigent defense fund in 2001 to help defendants in 1,167 cases — with the court system in full operation.

“You’ve got police who are investigating crimes and arresting suspects, you’ve got prosecutors who are filing charges and willing to prosecute. You’ve got judges available to preside over these cases but they are all sitting there in limbo because of the court’s inability to appoint attorneys,” Sewell said.

Meanwhile, Morris said his office has taken a financial hit from the lack of court-appointed cases and he is scrambling to make up that loss by taking on more private clients. However, he said the economic toll is high on public defenders who depend solely on the state for their income.

“The community is really the loser here,” said Morris.

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