Budget Cuts Lead to Changes in Criminal Case Procedures, Affect Civil Cases

March 2011
By Judge Stephen K. Bushong, Multnomah County Circuit Court.

Criminal law practitioners should be aware of changes that have been implemented - and additional changes that are being considered - to enable the court to continue processing all of the cases that come into the system. Civil practitioners need to be aware of these developments, too. Reductions in resources available to the court will have an impact on criminal and civil cases. The changes that have been implemented so far include:

Misdemeanors treated as violations.

Because of budget cuts, the District Attorney's (DA's) office has begun charging defendants with violations instead of misdemeanors - and reducing some pending misdemeanor charges to violations - in certain cases. Violations are tried to the court and are punishable by fines. Defendants charged with misdemeanors have the right to a jury trial and face consequences that could include jail, probation, community service and other sanctions. In Multnomah County, 19,043 misdemeanor cases were filed in 2009, and 9,036 misdemeanor cases were filed during the first six months of 2010. Treating misdemeanors as violations will reduce those numbers, thereby saving the resources that the DA's office and the court would need to process the cases as misdemeanors.

Staff reductions.

The court has not filled vacancies in court operations staff in recent years. Currently, 26 staff positions are vacant and will remain unfilled for the foreseeable future. To help minimize the impact of these vacancies, every judge's judicial assistant is now required to devote 25% of her time each week to court operations required to keep the court functioning. This means that judicial assistants are generally unavailable during that time to assist their judges. As a result, scheduling matters with a judge may be delayed; paperwork processing will take longer; communications with attorneys, probationers and the public may be disrupted; telephone calls may go unanswered; and there will be delays in returning phone calls.

Referee layoffs.

Recently, four referees (3.5 FTE) were laid off due to budget cuts. The dockets handled by those referees - misdemeanor and felony arraignments, expedited probation violation hearings, DUII diversion hearings, and other matters - are now being handled by circuit court judges serving in the Justice Center on a rotating basis. This means that fewer judges are available to handle trial assignments in criminal and civil cases. During the first six months of 2010, 137 criminal cases and 55 civil cases were resolved through jury trials, and 1,917 cases of all types were resolved through court trials. With fewer judges available to handle all of these trials, resolution of some cases may be delayed. In addition, judges have less time available for probation violation hearings, civil motion hearings, judicial settlement conferences and other matters.

DUII early resolution program.

The court has implemented a new program to process guilty pleas from first-time DUII offenders on an expedited basis. In general, first-time offenders who plead guilty under this program are placed on enhanced bench probation and given the minimum sentence required by Oregon law - two days in jail or 80 hours of community service, plus a $1,000 fine and drivers' license suspension, if they attend the Victims Impact Panel, complete at least 25 hours of community service, complete an alcohol evaluation and arrange for treatment, all within 60 days of the plea. Progress is monitored at a court hearing held about 60 days after the plea. If an offender has not met those conditions, the offender is taken into custody immediately to begin serving a 30 day jail sentence. This program resolves many DUII cases at an earlier stage, thereby saving resources that otherwise would be spent processing those cases.

The budget situation is not expected to improve significantly in the immediate future. The court has already adopted an expedited civil jury trial program, and we are currently studying ways to improve misdemeanor case handling procedures and methods for addressing the thousands of offenders currently on bench probation. This is all part of the court's continuing effort to improve efficiency without unduly disrupting the court's ability to serve the public. It may become necessary to implement other changes in court processes and procedures, depending on the availability of resources. While the court remains committed to its core functions and will do everything it can to minimize disruptions, criminal and civil practitioners can expect delays in case processing and other changes that will affect the functioning of the court.