The court system in rural Clark County, Indiana, is among the busiest in the state—and likely to get busier thanks to the opioid crisis that is ravaging the region.
Like most counties in rural America, that has added to a jail crisis that has no obvious solution in sight. According to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, the county jail has been at its near-capacity of 700 inmates since January.
A reprieve may be on the way, however.
A request pending before the Indiana legislature would bring the number of combined judges and magistrates to 10 from eight — closer to the state Supreme Court-recommended number of 11, based on caseload.
Vicki Carmichael, Clark County Circuit Court No. 4 judge, says the new court officers could help expedite cases, including those in which initial hearings could mean a reduction in bond or release.
“You’ve got people sitting in jail that should be out, because they haven’t come to court and they can’t post bond,” Carmichael said.
If the legislature approves the request in its spring session, it won’t come a moment too soon, said Carmichael.
“We’ve got new growth coming,” said the judge. “That means new crime, that means new civil disputes, that means new everything— and we need new courts.”
According to the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office, there were 6,249 new criminal cases filed in 2017 and, as of Nov. 9, 5,037 filed so far this year.
On average, the work of Clark County’s four circuit courts each do the work of 1.38 courts, Overall, the county’s courts are the sixth-most overburdened out of the 92 counties in Indiana.
There’s agreement on the need from all sides of the county’s justice system.
According to Clark County public defender Dave Mosley, “there’s no doubt” that the courts are overburdened.
In Circuit 3 alone, where defendants are charged with misdemeanors or lesser felonies, and are less likely to be serving time in pretrial detention, the overcrowded dockets mean it can still be a hassle for them to get their cases resolved quickly, Mosley said.
The problem is worse in courts where defendants are typically facing more serious charges, said Mosley.
“You’ve got a larger percentage of people in jail and the… opioid crisis has just swamped [Circuit Court 2].”
Mosley has been in practice for 32 years and in the first 25, he can remember just one case involving heroin. But that’s changed drastically, he said.
“In the past seven years, it’s everywhere,” he said. “It’s all through the cases.”
Mosley isn’t talking about clear-cut drug dealing or possession charges, but the ones that come with addiction and drug culture.
“I get appointed a person or I’m hired by a person, it’ a burglary case or maybe it’s shoplifting — all sorts of different crimes,” he said. “But flip it over and….you find out it’s a person with a drug problem.”
Clark County Prosecutor Jeremy Mull agrees that drugs are at least partly responsible for fueling the rise in crimes in Clark County, and said it’s “without question” that overall crimes have gone up since he started in the prosecutor’s office in 1999.
He believes that drugs drive about 90 percent of crime in the county.
“When I started, there may have been 200 to 300 felony drug cases filed every year,” he said. “Now we’re well over 1,300.”
Mull said he knows the courts are overburdened — it’s something he sees the effects of on a regular basis.
Crime Victims Penalized By Delays
In fact, it’s not the defendants, but the crime victims, who are losing out, he said.
“One of my biggest frustrations as prosecutor is the number of delays that happen in criminal cases,” Mull said. “And I can tell you I hear from many crime victims as well they are upset by the delays.”
He said the defendants are by and large released on their own recognizance, and those with higher or no bonds are for people he believes should not be released.
“The ones that are being held in jail absolutely need to be in jail,” he said.
Local leaders are already wondering if they need to plan more space if the legislature approves the request.
Right now, the Clark County municipal government building houses all four county courts, the county jail and county offices such as commissioners, council, clerk and auditor.
A feasibility study was initiated by the county last month to determine if leased space should be sought for some of the county offices, or if a separate government center should be built to house them.
“It’s something we’re exploring,” Coffman said Clark County Commissioners President Jack Coffman. “How much space we need [now], how much space we need for the future, and determining what’s going to be the best route for the county to take.”
Aprile Rickert, the crime and courts reporter for the News and Tribune, is a 2018 John Jay Rural Justice Reporting Fellow. This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story she published this month as part of her fellowship project. A full version is available here. Follow her on Twitter: @Aperoll27