If you look at the number of criminal cases filed in Douglas County District Court so far this year compared with 2010, you are probably scratching your head.
Last week, prosecutors had filed 973 criminal cases compared with 1,861 cases at that same point in 2010.
The knee-jerk reaction: Either the crime rate has dropped dramatically or someone in our criminal justice system has become much more lenient.
The reality: In 2011, the county ceased filing several traffic-type offenses, including DUI and driving-while-suspended charges, as criminal cases. Now they are classified as traffic cases.
That’s significant because the county prosecutors have filed nearly 300 driving-while-suspended cases and about 275 DUI cases so far this year.
“Our numbers are forever going to look really different going forward,” District Attorney Charles Branson said. “Our workload hasn’t changed. The number of cases we handle really hasn’t changed. It’s just what column they’re in now.”
Robert Fairchild, the county’s administrative judge, said court officials made the change after talking with the state’s Official of Judicial Administration, which has guidelines that provide those cases should be treated as traffic and not criminal cases.
The traffic cases are still prosecuted by Branson’s office, and he said if they were classified as criminal cases, the county would be on pace to be about 150 criminal cases behind the 2,070 criminal cases filed in 2010.
“That’s within our normal fluctuation,” said Branson, adding that it’s common to have a swing of a couple hundred cases from year to year.
His office filed about 1,900 cases in 2009 and 1,989 cases in 2008. The highest number in recent years was 2,365 criminal cases in 2006.
Branson said the numbers don’t point to more criminal cases directly associated with the economic downturn. But prosecutors have noticed a spike in more serious cases, such as robberies often involving multiple co-defendants, which can be more complex to investigate and prosecute.
Through October, Lawrence police had handled about 2,500 fewer calls for service this year compared to the same time in 2010. The department had also handled about 200 fewer accident reports and 500 fewer offense reports the first 10 months of last year.
Public Affairs Sgt. Matt Sarna said those numbers don’t show a major drop-off from year-to-year. They also don’t reflect the amount of work other members of the department handle, such as the neighborhood and school resource officers and detectives.
Fairchild said there are other indicators for how busy the courts have been.
“It seems like there have been more contested hearings, especially in mortgage foreclosures and probate cases,” said Fairchild, who handles civil and probate cases along with his administrative duties.
Mortgage foreclosures in Douglas County started to spike in 2008. The county had 103 in 2005, 202 in 2006 and 225 in 2007 before filings hit 291 in 2008, 354 in 2009, 373 in 2010 and 259 so far this year.
At least in civil cases, which can include foreclosure cases, the number of filings this year might indicate a slight economic improvement in Douglas County. About 675 civil cases have been filed in district court so far this year. From 2008 to 2010, the county reached that number by October, but from 2005 to 2007, it didn’t happen until December.