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Court staff running fast to keep up


Scaled back St. Helens court system sends fewer to jail, but collections fine

Midway through the budget season, St. Helens city and court officials say they’re pleased with a revised municipal court system that had staffing trimmed out of it to better manage costs.

“I don’t believe the community is having any adverse impacts,” said Presiding Municipal Court Judge Cindy Phillips.

Phillips said the scaled-back court system has been able to stay on top of incoming police reports for new crimes and violations.

In July, the number of days per week when a prosecutor — formerly on staff and now contracted — was available had been reduced from three to two.

The cuts were part of an overall 30 percent reduction in city staff.

The budgetary effect on the changes has been to reduce the court’s draw from the city’s general fund from $163,844 last year to an estimated $100,420 this year, a 39 percent savings.

In the first three months, the number of cases tried in municipal court declined 22 percent, from 293 in the first quarter last budget year to 234 this year.

From a revenue perspective, money received from court collections is only down a slim 4 percent, a difference of $2,950 from last year, a victory for the revised court system considering the drop in total cases and recent legislative changes that reduced fine amounts for certain traffic violations.

“That means that even though we’re only in court two days per week, we’re still getting a lot of people paying their fines,” Phillips said.

Prompt payment incentives have likely helped stabilize collections, said city Finance Director Jon Ellis.

The cuts haven’t only affected revenue. Police services have also hit in several ways, understandably considering the almost symbiotic relationship between the city court and the St. Helens Police Department.

“The police feed the courts,” Ellis said. The police force is down from 20 sworn officers to 16, resulting in fewer cases for the court.

In fact, police managed 42 fewer non-traffic misdemeanors in the first budget quarter, a difference of 66 over the three-month period.

Felony cases are handled in the state circuit court.

Fewer misdemeanors

Prior to the cuts going into effect last July, police were provided up-to-date sentencing order lists of defendants who were ordered to comply with certain conditions, such as drug and alcohol offenders being restricted from bars or hanging out with other known violators. That’s no longer the case.

Offenders are also having probation sentences cut short, Phillips said, which results in an overall saving on court time and expense.

Combined, police on patrol who recognize a known offender who may be restricted via court order from certain establishments or associations have hesitated to contact the suspect due to information lag, Phillips said.

The net effect has been significant for the Columbia County Jail. Last year, Sheriff Jeff Dickerson and former Municipal Court Judge Diana Shera-Taylor sparred over the volume of jail sentences hailing from the city court as those sentences strained jail resources.

Today, the number of misdemeanor sentences from the city court has declined 34 percent versus 2010 calendar year, a drop from 16,537 sentencing days to 4,513 in 2012, Dickerson said.

Additionally, the sole prosecutor working with the courts hasn’t had time to bring separate charges against people who skip their court days, as previously occurred, or to handle arraignments. Now, a warrant is issued for the no-show offender’s arrest and no added charges are brought. In lieu of arraignments, offenders talk directly to the judge.

Ellis said the city is exploring ways to restore some services, especially pointing to the sentencing order list. He said it would require an addition six to eight hours per week to restore the sentencing order list.

For the time being, however, the current model is likely to pass through into next budget year, with an expected conservative revenue forecast setting an aggressive pace for the remaining court staff to match.

“Bottom line is, I think we’re having to run very, very fast to keep up,” Phillips said.