NWA editorial: Slow justice?

Pace in Washington County courts crowding jail

When Perry Mason or the attorneys of Law & Order get a court case, the span between the commission of a crime and conviction or acquittal flies by within an hour, with commercials.

Real life isn't so convenient or efficient. The judicial system is built to function with deliberation. It is, after all, dealing with matters of enormous magnitude. Most Americans go to work every day in challenging or difficult jobs, but when all is said and done, the outcome of our work won't determine whether someone will lose his liberty.

What’s the point?

The Washington County judicial system has the capacity to speed up the process for those accused of crimes if all its parts commit to more aggressively moving toward timely trials and plea bargains.

But as with everything, there's a question of balance. Speed court proceedings up too much and one risks diminished levels of information, accuracy and fairness. Allow them to slow down too much and the courts begin to look like, well, Congress. When things creep along, it comes at a steep price for systems of law enforcement and rehabilitation/punishment. Who pays that price? Well, lucky taxpayer, we'll be the bearer of bad news: It's you.

At last Monday's meeting of the Quorum Court's Jail, Law Enforcement and Courts Committee, Washington County justices of the peace questioned why two-thirds of the 687 people in the county jail fell into the "innocent until proven guilty" category. That is, they stand accused of a crime or crimes but haven't had their day in court yet.

Why such interest? Because pre-trial inmates are the financial responsibility of county government. Their food, lodging and medical costs can add up to serious figures. The jail generates some of its own revenue, but county leaders anticipate having to shift as much as $2 million from general county tax revenue -- that's money we county residents and businesses pay -- to cover the costs of the jail next year.

Most people, we suspect, don't worry much about the differences among the people at the county jail. At least in the public eye, getting tossed in the clink is, as often as not, interpreted as deserved. The county sheriff, charged with operating the jail, can't afford such nonchalance. He's got to segment inmates so that convicted felons aren't mixed with people who haven't been to trial yet. Further, jailers have a process that assesses the different kinds of pre-conviction inmates they take in. Essentially, the desire is to make sure jailers don't throw someone accused of, say, embezzlement from a church into an area with a guy whose history includes violence. One slip-up can be a recipe for disaster within the jail.

Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder says that job is getting harder with so many pre-conviction people housed in the jail. Two or three years ago, the sheriff's office reports, about one-third of the population was made up of people awaiting their trial. In the last couple of years, that's double.

It's a problem for the safety of the inmates and the jail staff. It's also a problem for county government because of the costs. Once a person is convicted, he can be moved into part of the jail to join others who have been convicted. It requires less segmentation. And, importantly, the cost of housing the convicted inmates can be offset to some degree by charging the state or federal governments, whichever one is responsible for longer-term, post-conviction imprisonment.

The problem is multifaceted. Growth in the number of felony cases in Washington County has purred along at about 10 percent a year for the last few years; this year, the number of cases has grown by 20 percent, with many charges related to drugs, according to Prosecutor Matt Durrett. About a quarter of the inmates also have failure to appear charges, which results in high bonds many of them cannot afford, so they sit in jail awaiting the next court hearing.

One also has to take into account the role of the judge in managing the judicial process. Two judges handle almost all of the criminal cases in Washington County. Judge Mark Lindsay gets 75 percent of the cases and Judge Joanna Taylor gets the rest. Judges are elected in the state of Arkansas, and because candidates most of the time don't get into the specifics of cases, their campaigns almost always rest on convincing voters they have the right temperament, judgment and experience to efficiently administer the court's responsibilities.

Judges come in all kinds. Until 2015, Judge William Storey handled most criminal cases and had a reputation as a no-nonsense judge who kept the pressure on prosecutors and defense attorneys to keep the judicial process moving. If an attorney sought a continuance, it certainly wasn't so automatic that he or she would receive it without a problem beyond anyone's control, such as delays at the State Crime Lab or the State Hospital, where mental exams for defendants are carried out.

Are the current judges maintaining a high standard, holding prosecutors and defense attorneys accountable for continuances that could have been avoided? Or are the attorneys setting their own schedules?

Our judicial system is made up of a lot of moving pieces, whether it's the science of evidence testing and mental exams, or the development of cases by prosecutors, or the preparation of defenses by public defenders or private attorneys in conjunction with their clients. The only people who wield the authority to set expectations for performance in the courtroom are the presiding judges.

Durrett and Helder said at last week's committee meeting that they believe the recent slower pace of justice in Washington County can be worked out if the various parties involved are motivated to find answers. We hope that's true, but from our point of view, such efforts will be fruitless if presiding judges do not take a direct interest in striking a stronger balance between fairness and efficiency in the courts.

Washington County's judicial system has seen its caseload grow, but it's not so massive that these issues can't be resolved if prosecutors and defense attorneys are driven to be ready for trial as quickly as possible. Or if they're motivated to work out their plea deals earlier in the process rather than later.

A judicial system that's lumbering along costs everybody -- taxpayers included. And criminal defendants ought not have to sit around in jail for months and months just because people in charge of the "system" are comfortable with the convenience of slow administration of justice.

The judicial system shouldn't try to operate like Road Runner, but it also shouldn't creep along like the Department of Motor Vehicle sloths in "Zootopia."

And lest we forget: The challenges of management at the Washington County jail aren't likely to get any easier when the city of Springdale closes down its jail and starts sending its misdemeanor inmates to Washington County for booking.

Commentary on 11/12/2017

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