Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

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March 16, 2013

Court-at-law, one year later

Backlog, jail population don’t fall as expected

Corsicana — In December 2011, Navarro County saw the start-up of a new statutory, or county-court-at-law with appointed Judge Amanda Putman.

The stated purpose of the new court was to address the jail population, which was costing the county hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and to address a growing backlog of cases in the court system.

Statistics show that neither of those things have happened, although there is less of a backlog, if you take a long view of it.

According to data provided by the District Clerk’s office, the number of backlog cases in district court did fall by 214 in 2012. That was offset, however, by the addition of 377 backlogged cases in the County Court at Law. The overall total grew by 182.

From a high of nearly 900 criminal cases four years ago, to less than 600 two months ago, the backlog did fall substantially in 2012. Then it jumped back up in January 2013. One clue as to what’s going on is that in December, the grand jury indicted 59 people, and in January, they indicted another 44. The combined courts didn’t clear that many cases, though.

Four years ago, Judge James Lagomarsino became district judge. He knew about the backlog before he began, and immediately set to work on the criminal cases.

“I probably spent more time on the criminal cases than the others in the beginning,” Lagomarsino said.

He counts his successes by years. This past year, he finally cleared almost all of the cases dating back to 2008. Of the 2009 cases, there are eight still outstanding, but those eight are people who haven’t been captured. Their cases will remain on the docket until they’re caught. Of the 2010 cases, there are eight active warrants, again, people who need to be caught before they can be tried.

“Those cases are still pending,” Lagomarsino said. “We can’t dismiss them if they can’t be found.”

In his first couple of years on the bench, Lagomarsino said the older cases were the easiest to dispose of. When a new criminal case is filed, the defendant is eagerly demanding a trial, but with older cases that have hung around for awhile, the defendant is often ready to accept a plea bargain just to end the suspense. Lagomarsino prioritized the cases where someone was in jail, and slowly worked on getting rid of the older criminal issues. He also instituted a new docket system which scheduled more than one case at a time, knowing that some will fall to the wayside, typical when working with lawyers and criminals, but with one or more always waiting in the wings so the court could proceed regardless.

“We can only try one case at a time but we set five or so at a time,” Lagomarsino said.

“There were some that were as old as six or seven years. We learned that the court had to be in control of the docket,” he said. “I think the criminal cases have slowed down because the newer cases don’t go flying through.”

Having a criminal docket of 500 is to be expected, according to District Attorney Lowell Thompson. He’s proud of those numbers, he said.

About 200 of those are people who haven’t been caught yet, and at least one of those cases dates back as far as 1979.

“They’ve never been arrested, maybe they’ve died or run to Canada or Mexico, and therefore they can’t go to court yet,” Thompson said. “Those obviously are going to be pending, but there’s nothing we can do about those until they’re caught. The offenses, such as aggravated sexual assaults or one example I can think of is when that postman got killed, those are the types of offenses we’re not going to dismiss. If we ever catch them we’re going to prosecute them. We can’t dismiss those cases just to make our numbers better. We can’t do that.”

The other 300 are cases that are working their way through the system. Each month, the grand jury indicts an additional 40 to 50 people. It takes about three months to move a case through the system, and six months to a year isn’t out of the ordinary. So, at any given time there will be at least 300 active criminal cases in the system, Thompson estimates.

Having the second court is helping, he said.

“On the criminal side at least I know we’ve cleared a bunch more,” he said. “There’s no way we haven’t.”

Having a grip on the criminal backlog is only part of the story, though. There are three other kinds of cases that have to be dealt with: Civil cases, in which two plaintiffs are seeking financial justice; family law cases, which include divorces and child custody cases; and juvenile cases.

Putman began work in December of 2011, but didn’t get more than a handful of cases until spring of 2012. The way the system works now is that new cases are divided equally between her court and the district court.

“I didn’t have a full docket until the middle of last year,” Putman said. “In regards to numbers, if my court wasn’t here then Judge Lagomarsino was going to get my numbers and his numbers. It would be impossible for one person to clear out what two people have been able to do.

“There’s plenty of work for two different courts and it also allows an opportunity to get into court faster than they would have before the court was created,” Putman said.

“Judge Lagomarsino has done a great job clearing out his docket's backlog,” Putman said. “Two courts help alleviate the backlog from growing and allow cases to move through the court system more expediently.”

Between the two courts, there were 29 jury cases heard last year, which is nearly twice as many as Lagomarsino was able to hear in 2011. He conducted 14 jury cases in 2011, with fill-in Judge John Jackson hearing an additional case in his court. There were 16 jury trials in 2010 in district court, according to Lagomarsino’s own records.

The disposition of cases is another issue. Disposition is the closure or resolution of a case. With the second court, there were 218 more dispositions in 2012 than in 2011. However, there were 238 fewer than there were in 2010.

Lagomarsino questions the accuracy of the disposition figures. His office recently did an internal audit and found at least 150 civil cases that had been resolved but never cleared from the District Clerk’s records. There may be more than that, Lagomarsino said. Either way, Lagomarsino said he would find out what the problem was and correct it, whether it was record-keeping or just a need for more speed.

“I will explore the options, including but not limited to, expanding the number of jury trials in a year; conducting hearings on Saturdays and Sundays; and re-looking at reasons for continuances of cases,” Lagomarsino said.

The other argument in favor of the second court was that it would help empty the jail. Jail numbers haven’t really changed though, according to figures from the sheriff’s office. Month to month, from 2011 to 2012, the number of prisoners goes up and down according to seasons, but most people don’t spent long periods of time in jail. Instead, they tend to stay a few days or weeks, but seldom do prisoners stay long.

There isn’t much of a correlation between the jail and the courts, according to Sheriff Elmer Tanner.

“Has it reduced the average daily jail population? No,” Tanner said. “I don’t see where it’s affected that number.”

Tanner went on to explain that the front-end of the criminal justice system — the arrests, even temporary housing of prisoners — isn’t tied that closely to the number of trials waiting a judge’s attention six months, a year, or even two years down the road.

“All the people arrested don’t remain in jail until trial,” Tanner pointed out.

Lagomarsino, Putman and County Judge H.M. Davenport all also brought up the fact that the County Court at Law is a court without a courtroom, which hamstrings Putman somewhat.

Two weeks out of the month, Putman uses the county courtroom, and when there aren’t cases going on in district court or if the Justice of the Peace courtroom is available she uses that. But it’s a shuffling game.

“We’re still having space/time issues,” Davenport said.

When the county administration moves out of the courthouse into temporary digs for the renovation of the historic building, there will be three courtrooms, Davenport said. As well, there will be a third courtroom when the renovations are finished, he said.

“I really think it’s too early to see the efficiency of the court until she’s got her own courtroom and can work full-time,” Davenport said. “We’re working the best we can with the space we have right now.”

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