Ingham County officials set to clear long court backlogs with new courtroom and visiting judge

Nearly two and a half years after the COVID-19 pandemic first halted jury trials across Michigan, the Ingham County Circuit Court has approximately 900 felony cases awaiting trial dates. audience for a variety of reasons – but now officials hope to reduce that number.

Officials announced last week that beginning Sept. 12, the court will open a courthouse annex in downtown Lansing and a guest judge will work on a “temporary long-term basis” to deal with the backlog, not only in trials, but also in sentencing and such. audiences too.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Bryan Crenshaw, chairman of the Ingham County Board of Commissioners, said in a news release. “The Visiting Judge Project is a unique and effective step towards resolving criminal cases that have remained in abeyance due to court operating delays due to COVID-19. Resolving these issues is important for defendants, victims and society.

Judge David Jordon, a retired East Lansing District Court judge, will serve as a guest judge for “at least the first few months,” the statement said.

Officials have been renovating the building since June using funds outside the county’s general fund. Sources include $2.7 million in federal funds from the county’s American Rescue Plan Act and $100,000 from a grant from the Michigan State Police’s Coronavirus Emergency Supplement Fund. According to the county’s website, Ingham County received $56.8 million in Direct Local Recovery Assistance from ARPA, signed by the Biden administration in March 2021. The funds must be spent by the end of 2024.

The cases were confirmed early in the pandemic, when authorities halted in-person jury trials in March 2020 to slow the spread of COVID. Due to the moratorium — which lasted until June 2021 in Ingham County — older cases had remained in abeyance as new felony cases were brought to circuit court.

Not all 900 cases are pending trial, Ingham County Circuit Chief Judge Joyce Draganchuk said this week. She estimated that this is the case for about 500 of the defendants. About 250 more are awaiting sentencing hearings and the rest of the felony cases in court have entered the system in the past 90 days.

To determine which cases to clear from the backlog first, Draganchuk said, judges considered older cases and those in which a person was incarcerated or otherwise in police custody. Still, she said, lawyers for some defendants have filed motions demanding speedy trials.

While Michigan law allows residents a trial within 180 days of filing such a petition, a state appeals court has ruled that the law does not replace COVID-19 orders.

“The Michigan Court of Appeals said COVID orders ending jury trials don’t count in the speedy trial equation, and rightly so, because how can you hold that against the prosecution?” said Draganchuk.

Jordon — and his eventual successor — will handle older felony cases where the defendant is not in custody — leaving the rest to sitting judges — Draganchuk said, as the Ingham County Sheriff’s Office informed court officials that the annex does not have the capacity to provide secure reserved space services to inmates.

This is not the first attempt to resolve the backlog. In September 2021, Ingham County also brought in guest judge Geoffrey Nicut. But without its own courtroom, it could only try cases when there was no courtroom.

The Annex, located at 426 S. Walnut Street across from the Veterans Memorial Courthouse, provides ample space to hold additional hearings. The renovated three-story office building also includes a jury meeting room and offices for the visiting judge.

County officials hope to clear the backlog before the annex’s three-year lease expires, Draganchuk said.

Communication improves, expedites cases

Defense attorney William Amadeo said trying to reduce the backlog has improved communication outside the courtroom between prosecutors and defense attorneys.

“We were really able to investigate the cases further despite the backlog,” Amadeo said. “We were forced to do more things outside of the courtroom that really allowed the parties to come together for positive resolutions, which were fair to the prosecution and the defense, in my view.”

Those resolutions have included pleas and dismissals when the defendant is not a threat to public safety, Amadeo said.

As of last spring, about 75% of inmates at Ingham County Jail had not been sentenced or were awaiting trial, said Scott Hughes, juvenile justice and community outreach coordinator for the district attorney’s office. of Ingham County. He said the county has 29 ongoing murder cases, including a significant number of people in custody.

In all types of cases, officials said, defendants are more likely to accept a plea when a trial is approaching.

“Typically, people plead because they don’t want to go to trial. They’re afraid they’ll get a longer sentence. If they don’t accept the plea and dispute the case, they go to trial. , but if a person is not facing an imminent trial, there is less incentive to plead,” Hughes said.

Judges also tried to whittle down the case total by holding pre-trial conferences multiple times, Draganchuk said.

“It’s hard to explain exactly how it moves cases. The judge then knows what the status is and…it puts a bit of pressure on people if you’re expecting that,” she said.

Fewer problems in other counties

Elsewhere in Greater Lansing, Eaton County officials say their local courts have no backlogs due to the pandemic. According to the Census Bureau, the county has a population of about 109,000 people, compared to about 284,000 people living in Ingham County.

“Our jury trial procedures were adjusted regularly based on safety measures and recommendations to ensure we were aware of the increase in COVID in our county,” said Amy Etzel, county circuit court administrator. from Eaton, in an email.

And in Clinton County, which has a population of about 79,000, judges are hearing their final pending jury trial this week, Chief Justice Lisa Sullivan said.

“We in Clinton County started doing jury trials earlier than others in the tri-county area. We were able to facilitate that and so over the last year we’ve really caught up with the lost ground,” Sullivan said.

Contact journalist Jared Weber at 517-582-3937 or jtweber@lsj.com.

This article originally appeared in the Lansing State Journal: Ingham County Has 900 Open Crime Cases, New Judge and Court Could Help Clear This Up

About Jessica J. Bass

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