It’s been 12 months since Levi Morris took over as Barton County attorney. A lot has happened in that time, he told the Barton County Commission Monday morning.
“Time flies. I’ve been here a year now,” he said. He took the opportunity on his first anniversary to offer an update, painting a picture of a streamlined office operating more efficiently.
The Barton County Republican Committee last December picked Newton native and Lyons attorney Morris to replace the resigning County Attorney Amy Mellor. On Nov. 20, 2018, Mellor announced her resignation effective Dec. 7 of that year, citing an ongoing rift between the county attorney and Sheriff Brian Bellendir.
Morris is completing what was roughly two years remaining on Mellor’s four-year term. After that, he is eligible to file and run for election to the post.
“We are all caught up,” he said. This means that all cases sent to the office for review have had charges files, charges declined, or the case sent back to law enforcement for follow-up.
“When I had my appointment meeting last December, there were a number of complaints that the County Attorney’s Office has been behind for years with charging cases,” he said. It took years for some cases to even be filed.
That’s not the situation at present, he said. Now, cases are addressed “as soon as possible.”
This was welcomed news for the commissioners who were at odds with previous county attorneys as well.
“I think that is pretty remarkable for you in your first year,” Commission Chairwoman Jennifer Schartz said. The problems of the past seem to be behind them and there is a better relationship between Morris, Bellendir and other county officials.
Changes – some good, some bad
In 2019, the office filed 476 criminal cases, including misdemeanors and felonies, 1,854 traffic cases, 100 juvenile-child in need of care cases, 50 juvenile offender cases, 67 care and treatment cases and 11 fish and game cases, Morris said.
This was a total of 2,558 cases, or about 9.8 cases per day. In 2018, 2,873 cases were filed, or about 11 cases per day.
“Criminal cases are going to be down from around 584 in 2018 to 480 in 2019,” Morris said. “That’s been intentional.”
This is partially because cases are consolidated for filing, but mostly that he’s drawn a different line for filing case.
A lot of time and resources get spent/wasted on the bad cases and he has tried to avoid filing bad cases that end up draining resources. “Bad cases can be described as cases that are absolutely headed for a jury trial, and there’s not a lot of evidence to hope we’ll win, but in the past charges may have been filed in the hopes that if the person is unable to make bond, we can get them to plead to something.”
Bellendir has also recently commented that the jail population is way down, Morris said.
Cases can be revisited and charges filed at a later date should it be merited, he said.
Juvenile offender cases are down as well. These dropped from 94 to 50 year over year, but this was beyond his control.
“That’s 100% the Kansas Legislature creating mandatory diversion for certain offenders and the decision for that is made prior to the case ever being sent to my office,” he said. This is an issue because the same sort of proposal is getting tossed around for adult misdemeanors as part of the criminal justice reform.
“Making diversion mandatory takes the discretion out of my hands, and if it’s taken out of my hands, it’s also taking it out of the hands of the public who can at least vote me out if they don’t like how I handle things,” he said. “I absolutely want to ring the alarm bell.”
This could impact charging decisions for such things as domestic battery, which can be a misdemeanor.
Changes and accomplishments have included:
• Calendars are now online. (This is for internal use only and is not available to the public.)
• Rearranging some attorney responsibilities. Many charging decisions are now being delegated to three assistant county attorneys.
Diversions are also being spread out among the attorneys.
• Added a new staff person. “I just got up to full staff Dec. 30 when my new receptionist started,” he said.
• They’ve changed days and scheduling to alleviate congested dockets which got the office backlogged. This helps keep county attorneys from wasting unnecessary time in court.
• Automated the phone system. It helps steer people to the right direction and cuts down on the time spent by staff.
• Driving under the influence blood warrants (meaning a blood sample was taken in relation to the case) are also more common. This cuts down on the number of jury trials and helps successfully resolve DUI cases outside of the courtroom, saving time and money.
• The office has stopped handling asset seizure and forfeiture cases.
“We never used to do them in the past,” he said. Mellor started doing them a few years ago.
“But, we’ve set it up so that Watkins Calcara now handles them,” he said. “The result is that far more are being filed, which makes law enforcement happy, and it lessened the burden on my office. I even had a defense attorney comment on the increased number for forfeitures.”
This allows law enforcement to be more aggressive in seizing property, he said. “We get more cash, more cars and more drug proceeds off the streets.”
• Unnecessary subpoenas have been reduced. They are issued on Thursdays and the number has gone from 60 to six. This saves time for officers and Morris’s office.
“The Thursday change has been huge,” he said. “It’s probably the thing I’m most proud of.”
• Capitalizing on the already installed case management software. This can generate paperwork and forms, saving the attorney’s time.
• The county attorney’s office is working on digitizing communication with law enforcement to speed up getting cases to his office and going paperless (with it possibly being done in five our six years).
Barton County Commission meeting at a glance
Here is a quick look at what the Barton County Commission did Monday morning:
• Heard an update from County Attorney Levi Morris on his first year in office.
• Approved a resolution adopting the Kansas Homeland Security Region E Hazard Mitigation Plan, which replaces the Barton County Multi-Jurisdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan adopted in March 2015.
• Reappointed Emergency Preparedness Director Amy Miller to the South Central Regional Council for Homeland Security.
The council supports statewide all-hazard preparedness while reducing vulnerabilities, Miller said.
• Named Dr. Bill King, Dr. Mike Malone, Great Bend Fire Department Battalion Chief John Stettinger and Brian Jacobs with the new Xpress Wellness Urgent Care to the Health Department Advisory Committee.
Barton County solicited applicants for four uncompensated positions for the committee which reviews and makes recommendations on policies related to public health services in Barton County, Health Director Shelly Schneider said. The committee meets monthly.
The uncompensated positions term Dec. 31, 2021.
• Approved a revision to the Schedule of Authorized Positions for 2020 that was adopted on Aug. 5, 2019. The addition of a grant coordinator will require one full-time position be included on the list, County Administrator Phil Hathcock said. The list includes 206 county employees.