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Courts now play catch up

After four months of Friday closures, more than 100 postponed cases are set to resume this week
News Editor
   July 2, 2003 — After crippling budget cuts forced courts statewide to close on Fridays, Jefferson County Circuit Court resumes normal hours this week with a back load of cases.
    Today, prosecutors hope to complete the arraignment of 138 delayed cases that have been postponed since March.
    On Tuesday, the court began arraigning individuals in a grueling schedule that set aside five minutes for every case. The immediate back load was intended to be wrapped up today with every defendant entering a plea and receiving a court-appointed attorney.
    “I suppose we’ll see if the cases can be handled in that time frame,” District Attorney Peter Deuel said Monday.
    The Oregon Judicial Department ran out of money four months ago to pay its staff for a 40-hour work week and fund court-appointed attorneys to represent alleged criminals in all cases.
    As a consequence, the department prioritized crimes by their seriousness. Individuals facing lesser crimes were released from jail after making brief appearances in court, where a judge assigned them a date to appear after the beginning of the new fiscal year, which started Tuesday.
    Crimes that have not been prosecuted the past four months include small claims of less than $5,000, non-person misdemeanors, felony drug and property cases and certain probation violations. In other words, persons committing crimes such as credit card fraud, writing bad checks, theft, criminal mischief, possessing drugs and a slew of others charges were given a free pass until this week.
    Deuel said prosecutors will offer a majority of the individuals with holdover cases what’s called an “early disposition plea offer.”
    “Some of those cases, and some of those defendants, will receive a somewhat better offer to try to settle cases because of the backlog,” Deuel said. “We’ll make some efforts to try to more expeditiously resolve cases.”
    A warrant for arrest most likely will be filed against anyone failing to appear.
    Seventeen individuals face multiple holdover cases. But local law enforcement officials said they saw no major signs of individuals exploiting the Circuit Court’s situation.
    “I didn’t see anyone repeating crimes and taking advantage of the system, but they certainly were aware of it,” Madras Chief of Police Tom Adams said.
    “I know it can be quite frustrating to have people released so soon after being arrested, but their day in court has come,” Adams continued. “I appreciate the community being so patient in this matter.”
    Sheriff Jack Jones said the Jefferson County Jail’s inmate population slightly declined after the delays began.
    “With our jail size and the space we have open, we should be able to accommodate any surge,” he added.
    Jefferson County Circuit Court employs 11 state-funded employees. Excluding judges, each suffered a 10 percent pay cut during the past 10 months but got a three-day weekend.
    “I know that some of the staff got used to the four days a week, but we just roll with the punches,” said Jessica Saldana, a court operations supervisor.
    The most severe consequence of the delays, Deuel said, were the affect they had on victims of felony property crimes.
    The most notable case occurred just a week after the delays went into effect. The Madras Police Department arrested a man who officers allegedly caught in the act stealing cash during a burglary at the Elks Lodge.
    In addition to theft and burglary, the suspect was charged with attempting to escape because he allegedly tried to kick his way out of a patrol car.
    He was released from jail the next day.