Lawyer: Sometimes, justice moves at 'glacial pace'

2013-07-05T00:00:00Z 2013-07-05T11:40:12Z Lawyer: Sometimes, justice moves at 'glacial pace'Susan Brown, (219) 662-5325

CROWN POINT | Schererville's Jennifer Young believes the man whose car struck the back of her husband's motorcycle seems to be getting off lightly compared to the couple's ordeal.

Nearly two years have gone by since her husband's neck was broken in the incident.  The other man's drunken driving case still remains on the docket in traffic court.

Court records show the Hobart man faces a felony count of operating while intoxicated causing serious bodily injury, as well as three drunken driving-related misdemeanors in connection with the crash.

Court records also show since Sept. 16, 2011, the man has been to court six times for a variety of hearings. Another hearing was canceled June 12. A motion to suppress is set to be heard July 16.

"How long does it take to get somebody convicted?" Young asked. "We went for months that my husband wasn't able to drive."

Young was her husband's caretaker during that time.

"He didn't work from September to January," she said.

Repeat visits to court now mean the couple has to take time from work, she said.

"It's so frustrating ... What kind of message does it send?"

To Young, there appears to be not enough judges, not enough prosecutors.

"They seem really overworked," she said.

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said he believes in doing as much as possible to move the case along for the sake of the victim and to help lighten the impact on the courts.

He instructs deputy prosecutors not to ask for continuances or to cause a continuance unless an unforeseen issue arises, such as a key witness not being available.

The judge makes the decision in granting continuances, Carter said.


Method to the madness?

A look at court statistics shows the state is short of judges.

District 1, which comprises Lake County, is short three judges to handle the county's caseload, according to Kathryn Dolan, public information officer for the Indiana Supreme Court.

District 2, made up of Porter, Jasper, Newton and Benton counties, is short two judges, while District 3, composed of LaPorte, Pulaski and Starke counties, is short four judges.

To distribute the caseload fairly, in 1993, the Indiana Supreme Court's Division of State Court Administration sought a consultant to develop the Weighted Caseload Measurement System.

The system, based on time studies and case file audits, gives relative "weights" measured in minutes to each new case filed in the trial courts, according to a 2012 report prepared by the state court administration.

The system evaluates new filings only, allowing the courts to forecast the judicial resources necessary to process the cases.

The system computes the number of judicial officers needed, the number of judicial officers and the use between the number of cases filed and the number of judges available to hear them.

Weighted caseload figures for 2012 obtained by The Times show the majority of Lake County superior courts are short the number of judicial officers ideally necessary to handle the caseload, including all judges, magistrates and commissioners.

In the court that's hearing Young's case, that of Lake County Superior Court Judge Nicholas Schiralli, the system allocated Schiralli 350 more misdemeanor cases in 2012 than the other three county division courts.

"We are required to balance the caseload not only within the county division but also with all the other courts in the system,' said Judge John Pera, chief judge of Lake Superior Court.

"Judge Schiralli had a lower caseload of civil work compared to other county division courts," Pera said. The other three courts' caseloads were reduced to achieve parity.

In another example, D level felonies were ordered to be shared equally among Schiralli, the three other county division courts, and the four criminal felony courts when the county division courts were found to be overused.

"We're trying to equally distribute over 100,000 cases filed on an annual basis in the circuit and superior courts, and that is a daunting and time-consuming task and one of my primary responsibilities as chief judge," Pera said.

The Lake County courts are well within the proper range set by the state through the weighted caseload system, he says.

"My colleagues have responded in a positive way to find ways to balance our caseloads, and I take my hat off to them," he says. 

Meanwhile, the American Bar Association in 2011, along with the Conference of Chief Justices, the Conference of State Court Administrators, and the National Association for Court Management approved a set of model time standards for state trial courts.

For example, under the model, 75 percent of criminal felonies should be decided within 90 days; 90 percent within 180 days; and 98 percent within 365 days.

Indiana has not adopted time standards, but a number of county court systems are working to implement performance measures, according to the Indiana Court Times. 


Defense attorneys take a stand

Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defenders Council, thinks the reasons why cases take so long are more basic than judges' caseloads.

"There are a lot of delays because defense attorneys don't get discovery," he said. "Why should it take six months to get witness statements or police reports? They should be available the next week."

Landis said practices haven't changed to keep pace with electronic communication.

"Everything moves at a glacial pace," he said.

"It should not take a year to resolve a felony, and nine months to resolve a minor case with no factual disputes," Landis said. "If everyone agreed the resolution of a felony should take three months instead of 12 months -- it could happen."

But Landis says there is no incentive for change.

"There are no sanctions for inefficiency, and no real reward for high efficiency."

Highland attorney Sam Cappas disagrees.

"I don't think there's any way it can be standardized, because you can't paint every case with a broad brush," he said. "Every case has its peculiarities, and every client deserves to have the defense and the state pay particular attention to those peculiarities."

"I have never had a case delayed because of the judge having a problem with too many cases in his court," Cappas said. Nor, he said, has he ever had a delay with the prosecutor providing discovery in a timely manner.

Cappas says for victims, a case can become their entire focus, but attorneys are trying to coordinate about 200 cases a year.

"Each and every case deserves our utmost attention," he said. "It takes time to handle those thoroughly."

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