When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the cases filed by the Barton County Attorney’s Office and work of the 20th Judicial District, it’s been a mixed bag, County Attorney Levi Morris said.
“Obviously, you can’t talk about 2020 without COVID,” he said, giving a report to county commissioners Monday morning. While the virus didn’t rock the case-filing boat a whole lot, it did shut down jury trials and cause other judicial delays and backlogs.
On a daily basis, the office files criminal cases, adult and juvenile, child-in-need-of-care cases, and traffic cases. These fluctuate month to month, so he said it is more meaningful to look at them on an annual basis.
The Barton County Attorney’s Office filed 584 adult criminal cases in 2018, and about a 100 fewer in 2019 when he took over, he said. That drop was intentional as the office focused on only filing and perusing stronger cases.
“In 2020, with COVID overshadowing everything, we filed almost the same number of criminal cases,” he said. This number could have been 500 or higher, but he and many of his office staff were hit with the virus, which caused delays.
They filed 1,900 traffic cases in 2018 and 1,800 in 2019, a dip he didn’t see as significant. “But, in 2020, we only filed 1,500 traffic cases. That’s about a 17% drop,” largely attributed to the pandemic’s impact on people getting out and about.
As for other statistics, “by and large, juvenile offender numbers, child care cases and a lot of our other numbers are more or less steady,” Morris said.
Trials and tribulations
In March, Chief Justice of the Kansas Supreme Court Marla Luckert closed down the courts. “There were no jury trials, period. Clerks were operating with skeleton crews and minimal staff to process the bare minimum and paperwork to keep going,” Morris said.
They were shut down for six or eight weeks before a gradual reopening to process items of immediate concern, but still no trials. Every couple weeks, there was new set of rules.
Trials were allowed to start in the fall but, “as of today, the Kansas statutory right to a speedy trial still doesn’t exist,” Morris said. “Some counties are not even trying to have jury trials,” he added, estimating about two have taken place in the entire state in the last nine months.
“We tried,” he said. When trials were allowed to resume, judicial districts were required to submit a COVID-safe plan for Supreme Court approval.
Barton Count did and its plan was OKed, he said. This involved shuffling the seating in the courtrooms and requiring the public to view the proceedings virtually.
“We were going to have a jury trial in late November or early December, but the morning of, the defendant showed up and waived the right to a trial,” Morris said. They tried again a couple weeks later, but the defense attorney filed a motion to continue it.
“We were scheduled to have another jury trial last week, and two weeks or three weeks prior to that, the defense attorney again filed a motion to continue that case,” he said. “We’re currently scheduled at a jury trial next Monday, and right now it looks like it’s going to go, but I don’t know that I’d bet on it.”
This has affected how his office operates, Morris said. There are prisoners sitting in jail awaiting trial, but with no speedy trial mandate, they continue to wait.
He noted that the backlog has been used by defense attorneys to force deals once the speedy trial requirement is reinstated. But, this shouldn’t be a concern since the continuation of the waiver will allow courts to ease into a regular trial schedule.
In his presentation last year, Morris asked about hiring a fifth prosecutor for the county attorney’s office. But the budgetary timing wasn’t good then, and this year with COVID, it may still not be possible.
Even so, Morris wanted to get the idea out there again so it could be discussed in 2022.
“We’ve reached the point where I’m not going to tell you that we have to have that prosecutor. We’re surviving with the four,” he said.
The main point, he said, would be for the office to handle more trials. So this would bring about less incentive for offenders to plea out of their charges.
“I’d like to draw a different line in the sand as to who goes to prison and when, and who goes to probation and when,” he said. “But you don’t just show up and say, ‘I’m the sheriff’ and there’s a new line in the sand.’ You have to back that up.”
Drug dealers would realize they have two options, trial or prison, no more probation, he said.
There were no trials in 2020, but in 2019 there was a trial every two or three months. He’d like to see two or more every three months, and another attorney on the staff could make that happen.
Hearings, trials and the subsequent appeals are time-consuming, and again, extra hands would make this easier.
The Barton County Jail’s maximum capacity is 110, with the average population between 70 and 80 inmates. It may not have a large impact on those totals, but hiring another prosecutor may help lower the regular number of jailed offenders somewhat, Morris said.