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Courts engines fire up again

New fiscal year means more than 500 cases can finally go forward

More than 500 people indicted on felony offenses in Multnomah County will finally get their day in court beginning today.

State and county budget cuts caused a four-month delay in the cases going to court. But today, the start of the state's new fiscal year, these and thousands of felony and misdemeanor cases statewide Ñ including everything from drug and assault charges to outstanding warrants Ñ will be placed back on the docket.

And beginning July 11, all Friday court services Ñ except jury trials Ñ will be reinstated across the state.

Portland police say the restored schedule will do little to slow repeat property crime offenders, who burglarize homes, shoplift and steal cars without spending more than a few days in jail because of a lack of jail space.

The changes are 'really not

going to affect us,' said Sgt. Kelly Krohn, supervisor of detectives in East Precinct, the area that has seen the biggest increase in property crimes. 'The property crimes are just not being dealt with, so they continue to re-offend. The whole system is just out of whack.'

No money for attorneys

The logjam in the criminal justice system began in February, when Oregon Supreme Court Justice Wallace Carson Jr. responded to a $10 million shortfall in indigent defense funding statewide.

Because there wasn't enough money to pay for defendants' attorneys, he said, courts had to defer the large majority of misdemeanors and felony property-crime prosecutions Ñ such as auto theft, burglary and forgery Ñ until after the fiscal year.

Carson also ordered that courts statewide move to a four-day workweek after 10 percent of the court staff was laid off as a result of budget cuts.

The result: a disabled system that has left police, corrections officials and district attorneys scrambling to try to hold criminals accountable.

'It's just amazing how frustrating it's been for officers to continuously encounter the same people who tell the officers flat-out that they aren't worried about them, they aren't worried about the criminal justice system and they aren't worried about enforcement, because it's nonexistent,' said Sgt. Brian Schmautz, a Portland police spokesman.

The county's criminal justice woes even became national news fodder when stories appeared in a San Diego newspaper and The New York Times in recent weeks.

Many charges reduced

Douglas Bray, court administrator for Multnomah County, said there are 200 to 300 unresolved misdemeanor cases in Multnomah County that were rescheduled to court dates after July 1.

Bray said the deferred cases will be absorbed into the system instead of choking it because of a decision by the district attorney's office to reduce the bulk of misdemeanors to violations. Violations are essentially the same as parking tickets, carrying a fine but no jail time and not requiring a public defender.

Washington and Clackamas counties, however, have higher backlogs because, without as many financial pressures, they did not reduce the bulk of their cases to violations.

In Washington County, for example, the 1,868 cases that were deferred between March and this week have been assigned court dates beginning next month. That number is 35 percent of the total number of cases heard during that time.

Richard Moellmer, trial court administrator in Washington County, said the court had been anticipating the backlog and has planned to handle those cases separately from the normal docket. Beginning July 8, the court plans to hold 100 arraignments per day in the presiding judge's courtroom Ñ Tuesday through Friday.

'If Multnomah County had taken our approach,' he said, 'I don't think it's unreasonable to think they could've had 10,000 cases in their backlog. I'm happy for them.'

Jail beds at a premium

Police say the real test of whether the system can get back to normal will be if there's any jail space for offenders. The jails have been overcrowded for some time, corrections officials say, and state budget issues prevented officials from adding more jail beds.

'The fact we're going to start arresting them is great news,' Schmautz said. 'If the door is actually open and the sheriff gives permission to actually book people again, that would be a good thing. Even if we can't book them, if we could simply prosecute them, that would be a good thing.'

Sheriff's office spokesman Lt. Michael Shults said jail beds will indeed be more crowded than in past months, when the occupancy rate was much lower than usual, at around 95 percent.

He said it's been a stark change from the level before March, when the jail was consistently overcrowded and the sheriff released prisoners early every weekend through a matrix system.

'I know we'll be back into matrixing again,' Shults said, noting that the only saving grace for his department is that the county's passage of Measure 26-48 prevented the sheriff's office from having to cut 329 beds. 'July 11 will be the big day. That's our first (Friday) court date.'

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