89th District Court stays on budget

ROGERS CITY – Despite an uptick in misdemeanor, civil and small claims cases, Presque Isle County’s 89th District Court managed to stay mostly on budget.

Judge Maria Barton gave an annual report of court activities and finances to Presque Isle County Commissioners Friday. After the meeting, court Administrator Kristy Hardies cited the report’s figures of $295,068.43 in general fund revenue, trust and agency money and penal fines for the 2013 fiscal year. Of that, it paid $168,194.14 to the general fund, $93,367.29 to various state funds and $33,507 to the county district and law libraries.

That same fiscal year, the court spent $160,115.79, just $240.79 over its budgeted amount, Hardies said. That’s the result of numerous money-saving measures, including dropping subscriptions to certain legal volumes.

“We’re trying to look to save money wherever we can,” she said.

The county is also benefiting from the court’s work camp and community corrections programs, according to the report. The work camp allows defendants to perform community service instead of serve time in jail. Sixty people participated in 2013, saving the county $26,810 in jail costs and generating $1,915 in participation fees.

Community Corrections gives incarcerated offenders a chance to participate in programs like substance abuse treatment, outpatient counseling or to get their high school diploma, according to the report. Defendants from 89th District and 53rd Circuit courts skipped a total of 1,206 jail bed days by participating, saving the county $57,888.

Misdemeanor, civil infraction and small claims caseloads increased from 2013, Hardies said. Misdemeanor cases filed rose from 145 in 2012 to 237 in 2013. It’s a substantial increase of crimes such as marijuana possession, drunk driving and assault, and Barton and Presque Isle County Prosecutor Richard Steiger aren’t sure what’s behind the numbers.

“I was surprised to hear that as well,” Steiger said after the meeting. “It was the first time I’d heard the number of misdemeanor arrests being 100 more than last year. I’m relieved that of course there’s not 100 more felony arrests that were shown.”

The annual report shows felony cases at 83 for 2013, down from 87 in 2012 and 126 in 2009. These represent cases filed for more serious crimes, and all felony complaints are issued by the district court.

Probation caseloads rose as a result of more misdemeanor cases, Hardies said. Those convicted of misdemeanors, which carry one-year jail terms as the maximum sentence, often receive probation, and caseloads in 2013 jumped to 145, up from 97 in 2012. Civil infractions, which include minor traffic violations, jumped to 685 in 2013 from 452 in 2012. Traffic misdemeanors were down to 80 in 2013 from 82 in 2012 and 116 in 2011.

Hardies said she believes the rise in small claims cases could stem from a recent increase in the maximum dollar amount allowed for cases, from $2,000 to $5,000. Civil cases, where the maximum amount is $25,000, fell to 231 in 2013 from 268 the year previous. Landlord/tenant cases were up to 47 in 2013 from 29 in 2012.

Despite the increased work, the 89th district court met or beat state guidelines for adjudicating its cases. Of the misdemeanor cases that come before the court, 92 percent were adjudicated within 63 days of the first court appearance, and all were adjudicated within 126 days of the first appearance. That beats state guidelines of 85 percent and 95 percent, respectively.

Only 42 percent of preliminary examinations, or hearings used to determine the facts of the case, were held with 14 days of arraignment, according to the report. However, most attorneys find this time frame is too short to get the information they need to proceed with such a hearing, Hardies said. The report notes that 35 percent of defendants waive the 14 day rule so they have time to get more information.

“If they’re given 28 days many of the cases resolve, but 14 days is a big crunch to have the prosecutor and defense attorney try to get the case resolved,” she said.

The court holds 79 percent of its preliminary exams within 28 days of arraignment, better than state guidelines of 75 percent.

With a heavier caseload, there’s plenty of work to do, Hardies said, and the court added civil clerk and assistant administrator Collette Kulik in October 2013.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.