Photo by George Lauby
Lincoln County Attorney Rebecca Harling arrives March 10 for district court hearings, carrying an armload of files.
Photo by Bulletin graphics
A slowly-increasing number of felony cases jumped dramatically in 2013. (click on graph to enlarge.)
Photo by George Lauby
Lincoln County Court Judge Kent Turnbull
Attorneys, their arms loaded with case folders, come and go from busy Lincoln County’s courtrooms.
Judges spend hours reviewing cases.
Bailiffs struggle to keep cases scheduled and notify attorneys of their time in court.
It's an average workday in the Lincoln County Courthouse, where numbers of felony cases are sharply increasing.
Felony cases, which are heard in district court, jumped by a whopping 30 percent in 2013.
“Everyone has to do more,” Lincoln County Judge Kent Turnbull said, “from probation offices to attorneys to the court staff.”
Consider the work related to each court appearance. In each case, witnesses are interviewed by attorneys from both sides during "discovery" before the case goes into court.
In open court, defendants are arraigned and their pleas entered. Then they come back again when arguments are made. Agreements are often negotiated behind the scenes, to be discussed again in open court. Then the judge rules. Pre-sentence investigations are conducted. Finally, sentences are issued. All of this takes repeated appearances.
Things are even busier in county court, where each and every charge is presented and reviewed. If the charge is a misdemeanor, a ruling is made in county court, and the sentence is issued -- up to a maximum of a year imprisonment.
The duties in county court are are only part of the workload. Juvenile hearings are held there, too.
District Court Bailiff Patty Wonch said just scheduling everything is a challenge. The two district court judges – Donald Rowlands and Richard Birch – cover the 11th judicial district, regularly appearing in other counties. And, they preside over other cases besides felony crimes -- matters such as civil lawsuits, divorces and child support.
Rowlands and Birch travel the 17 counties of the judicial district. They are entirely responsible for Lincoln County, Keith County and the northern counties of Logan, McPherson, Arthur, Thomas and Hooker, Wonch said.
When a court date is set, Wonch sends notices to each attorney as well as the jail if a defendant is incarcerated.
Public Defender Bob Lindemeier said it challenging at his office, too.
Because most felons are indigent and impoverished, a court-appointed attorney is assigned. The attorneys have to get acquainted with the defendent and quickly learn what happened, often through visits at the jail, which have to be scheduled in advance.
Lindemeier noted that felonies are not simple cases to handle.
“Felonies are more complex, involving issues that require experience and knowledge of cases, statues and judicial preferences,” he said. “There is more pressure on the defense when a person is faced with a maximum sentence of 20 years versus a maximum misdemeanor sentence of one year.”
Lindemeier said some crimes that were once misdemeanors -- driving under the influence, theft and domestic violence -- have become felonies in recent years, adding to the workload.
The number of felonies also leads to backlogs at the state’s testing laboratories, where illegal substances are tested and DNA is checked in an excruciatingly slow process.
“The law requires the state to prove that a substance is in fact illegal," Lindemeier said. "But, it might take months for the testing to be done."
Another category of cases – juvenile crimes – have expanded exponentially in the last decade, Lindemeier said.
“When juvenile cases began to increase years ago, the county court dedicated Wednesdays to the cases,” he said. “That has expanded to Tuesdays and Wednesdays.”
Up in district court, criminal cases that are heard on Monday sometimes spill over to Tuesday.
Criminal cases are heard Thursdays in county court, using two courtrooms. Sometimes that workload spills over to other days too.
“Public defender positions, which are supposed to be part-time, now require someone from our office to be in court nearly every day of the week for a substantial portion of the day,” he said.
Lincoln County Attorney Rebecca Harling said her workload has increased tremendously. Not only do prosecutors have to prosecute criminal cases, her office also reviews tax foreclosures and liens. County attorneys also represent the county in lawsuits, and Harling serves as the county coroner, investigating unexplained deaths.
In addition to increased criminal caseloads, court work really intensified when Nebraska’s child welfare privatization effort collapsed four years ago, Turnbull said.
The privatization was overseen by Nebraska Health and Human Services Director Kerry Winterer and Gov. Dave Heineman. Despite the best of intentions, not enough private companies were interested in taking over the foster care work, and companies that tried to do the job didn’t last long. The existing child welfare system was dismantled but the new system never got off the ground.
It’s been a slow rebuilding process, Turnbull said.
He said North Platte once had 50 beds for juvenile offenders at the Boys and Girls Home on E. Second St., but the home closed. The home, now named the Nebraska Youth Center, re-opened in 2013, but currently only accepts about 20 boys from throughout western Nebraska, Turnbull said.
Consequently, courts and probation offices spend more time reviewing juvenile cases, trying to determine the best place for offenders -- in their homes, in foster homes, in jail or in juvenile centers in eastern Nebraska.
“The number of juvenile cases basically hasn’t changed,” Turnbull said, “but there is more to it, including psychiatric evaluations and drug and alcohol evaluations, all of which have to be ordered and reviewed.”
“We’re starting to get back to where we were,” he said of the foster care system, “but there are still things we are working out, including transportation and when a juvenile can be removed from a home and when not. We all have to do more than we’ve had to before. The schools are taking more of a role, too.”
“Fortunately, western Nebraska has always had a willingness to work together,” he said.
Underlying the heavy workload of the courts are hard drugs. The majority of felonies are related to methamphetamine, Turnbull said. Meth use has consequences that are long-term, compounding the problems, he said.
Turnbull said the burdens are particularly heavy on the county attorney and staff, who also develop diversion programs for less serious offenders, requiring community service and restitution instead of jail time.
“There’s been a huge increase there,” Turnbull said.
County attorneys also recommend candidates for drug court, a quasi-judicial program that has been added in recent years for non-violent drug offenders. The extensive two-year drug court program aims to help addicts kick their habits.
Turnbull said it all adds up.
“The county attorney’s office could use more help,” he said.
This report was first published in March in the Bulletin's print edition.