State imposed craziness in the courthouse

I learned something very surprising this week, so surprising that my response was, “that’s crazy.” And I said, “that’s crazy” a second time, and a third time. “That’s crazy!”

I learned the number of criminal trials that can be held each year in Greene County is limited to 10. “That’s crazy!” may be what you’re thinking, too.

Assistant county attorney Thomas Laehn shared that bit of information with the county supervisors as he briefed them on a proposal, or maybe it was a threat, by Iowa court administrator Todd Nuccio to close 30 courthouses across the state if the state House follows the lead of the state Senate and approves a $4.8 million cut to the state judicial budget.

Of course, the state judiciary can only close courtrooms and court offices, not entire courthouses. Be assured the Greene County courthouse is not closing.

Nuccio’s open letter said the criterion for closing courthouses (again, read that as “courtrooms”) would be the caseload volume in each county. He didn’t mention if that is on a per capita calculation or just a number. Is it to be the 30 counties with the smallest populations or the 30 most law-abiding counties whose residents will be penalized by having to drive to another county to access the court system?

Who knows? What we do know is that talk of consolidating counties has floated on the Iowa breezes for many years. We get excited, we get mad, and we realize how fortunate we are in rural counties to be able to drop off a tax payment or get a marriage license close to home.

Grumbling about “soft” prosecutors and the many times people we think have done really bad things “get away” with only a slap on their hands also seems to be constant. In Greene County, the sheriff has commented openly about lack of prosecution. He heralded the arrival of Laehn as assistant county attorney, hoping that more cases would go to trial rather than end with plea agreements.

But, craziness! Per Laehn, there aren’t enough judges and court reporters available, so the county is limited to only 10 criminal trials per year. Defense attorneys all know that. They know that when a county attorney says during a “negotiation” that he’d really like to take a particular case to trial, he’s probably bluffing. He has to make sure he keeps some trial slots in his pocket in case criminal minds excel later in the year. It’s the county attorneys who are wearing handcuffs, not the accused.

Imagine the prioritizing and balancing county attorneys are called on to do. How does a county attorney know in January and February what crimes might be committed later in the year? How many of his 10 trial slots does he use early in the year? Where does he set his own limits as to what sort of case goes to trial and what charges will result in only a hand slap?

That 10-trial limit adds a need for strategy to the county attorney’s office, and an opportunity for strategy by prosecutors, and perhaps, for criminals. Want to do something really bad? Schedule your crime paying special attention to the calendar. Do it when the county attorney has already taken cases to trial and don’t waive your right to a speedy trial.

The 10-trial limit puts our legal system in the same position as an employee guessing early in the year if she’s sick enough to use a “sick day” and stay home from work.

Perhaps court administrator Nuccio and the Iowa legislature need to figure out how to pay for more judges and court reporters and take the heat off county attorneys for “letting” bad guys off the hook.  ~by Victoria Riley, GreeneCountyNewsOnline publisher/editor

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