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Archive for Sunday, December 26, 1999

COURT STAFFING NEEDS GO UNANSWERED

December 26, 1999

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It's sink or swim in the district court clerk's office, where staff members are trying to keep their heads above rising caseloads.

A growing number of criminal, civil and domestic cases flowing through the Douglas County District Court system has Administrative Judge Michael Malone looking for extra hands to plug the holes in the dike before caseloads flood the court's support staff of court clerks and probation officers.

Help doesn't appear to be on the way anytime soon: Malone requested money for three new court clerks, two probation officers and a court reporter in next year's budget. The state's supreme court, which hears budget needs for the 31 judicial districts across the state, only included one probation officer position for Douglas County in its budget recommendation sent to the Legislature.

There are 14.5 full-time-equivalent positions in the district court clerk's office.

"With those extra positions, we'd be able to lighten the workload," Clerk of the District Court Jay Coffman said. "We've been trying to make do with what we have for years."

It's clear that metropolitan judicial districts in Sedgwick, Shawnee and Johnson counties are facing the same outlook, Malone said, especially since Gov. Bill Graves set a goal to cut state general fund spending by 6 percent next year. The governor will submit his budget to the Legislature Jan. 10.

"If the supreme court doesn't put it in their budget, we're not going to get it," Malone said about the five positions he asked for that weren't included in the budget. "We're one of 31 judicial districts in the state and although we're one of the busiest, we're certainly not the only district in the state that has personnel issues."

Understaffing effects

Court clerks keep the system moving, recording and filing every motion, marriage license, divorce document and lawsuit the five district court judges handle. Malone calls them the "central nervous system" of the judicial process.

While civil cases -- lawsuits that cover everything from bad checks to child custody -- rose 50 percent from 1990 to 1999 across the state, those cases in Douglas County increased almost 92 percent. At the same time, total felonies and misdemeanor criminal cases heard in district courts across the state increased 41 percent; here, they went up 78 percent.

The staffing in the district court clerk's office hasn't reflected those changes, forcing Malone to alter the hours the office is open to the public, allowing the staff to catch up on paperwork without interruptions from attorneys, phone calls or people wanting to pay court fines. For two years, the office has been open from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays.

"The idea of closing a public office to the public is not something I am particularly pleased with," Malone said. "But in order to process the paperwork, it is required."

Without the three extra clerks he requested, Malone said things will probably get worse before they get better. He's already backed off an earlier request for an extra district court judge, because there's not enough staff to support one.

"Staffing issues affect us daily," he said. "Cases which have been called by the court, the files haven't been updated; they're not current. Requests by attorneys for subpoenas or lawsuits to be served are backlogged. As a result, a case may come to court where the subpoenas haven't been served."

Even after a judge renders a sentence, the responsibilities continue. The 8.5 full-time probation officers in the court services office track an average of more than 200 cases each.

"When we have a probation staff that -- I use the term loosely here -- supervises over 200 probationers per officer, when we have a clerk's office that needs to be shut down an hour-and-a-half a day, and when we have a judge who doesn't have a court reporter, we have some huge staffing issues that need to be addressed," Malone said. "That doesn't even get into the pay issue. We lose people to Westlake Hardware, to the city and to the county."

Prosecutor added

In the Douglas County district attorney's office, Dist. Atty. Christine Kenney Tonkovich has something to look forward to after the holidays. On Jan. 3, she'll welcome new Assistant Dist. Atty. Trent Krug, who was an intern in the office his third year of law school at Kansas University.

A recent graduate, Krug will fill the first new assistant district attorney's position in the office since October 1994. Since then, Tonkovich and nine assistant attorneys have seen the office's caseload jump 44 percent. In 1996, the office filed 1,436 adult cases; in 1997, that jumped to 1,782 cases. On Dec. 7 of this year, the office surpassed last year's total of 1,883.

Unlike the court support staff -- whose salaries come from the state -- the extra prosecutor was paid for by the county, which approved the expense in August.

"I think it's a huge step," Tonkovich said of Krug's addition. "We not only want to make sure the cases we file are handled effectively, but there's a number of cases that take us a while to get to because the attorneys just don't have enough hours in the day. I'm hoping this will relieve some of the backlog in this office."

Krug will take over traffic, involuntary commitment and some appellate cases, and help with the misdemeanor caseload. By shifting some of the responsibilities, Tonkovich said, the other attorneys will have more time to prepare for high-level, complex cases.

"I have a person who's been in this office for 15 years who handles 'minor in possession' cases as well as murder cases," she said.

-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is ckoger@ljworld.com.

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