Stats snafu fuels call for expanded county courts

0
463

By Kristy Deer

[email protected]

HANCOCK COUNTY — The caseload for at least one of the county courts apparently is far larger than originally determined by court officials, who are using the data to lobby in the legislature for a new magistrate position.

Court officials now say they may have undercounted the number of cases in Hancock County Superior Court 1 by more than 2,000. It’s important for the county to know the size of its court caseload as the magistrate proposal makes its way through the Indiana General Assembly. Not only that: The number figures to factor in to discussions about whether the county will keep its court commissioner position if the magistrate position is approved.

Consensus so far among the judges is that they’ll give up the commissioner position once the magistrate is in place. The revised caseload statistics, however, are bolstering the case with at least one of the judges to keep a commissioner on the county payroll even after the magistrate post is created.

Judge D.J. Davis, who took over in Superior Court 1 on Jan. 1, worked with Marie Castetter, the court’s former judge, who originally found the error by court staff, to remedy the miscalculations.

Castetter said she found the issues when she started assembling quarterly reports in November.

“I worked with the county clerk and spent 12-plus hours over the Christmas holiday fixing all of the 2020 stats so Judge Davis would come in with accurate numbers,” Castetter said.

Castetter sent Davis an email in December to make him aware of the miscalculations from previous years and noted the caseload total was missing far more than the 650 civil and juvenile cases mentioned in a legislative hearing last week. By Castetter’s reckoning, the figure is off by at least 2,494. The discrepancy apparently dates to 2019, she said.

“It appears that all four quarters of 2019 and the first two quarters submitted for 2020 had major errors in the court’s statistics,” Castetter said. “This is why Hancock County dropped last year from being in the top 10 to 12 counties of needing a new court to somewhere in the middle of all Indiana counties based upon weighted caseloads.”

After talking to Castetter, Davis contacted state Rep. Bob Cherry, R-Greenfield, who was able to make sure more accurate caseload numbers were presented to a House committee during a hearing last week on the magistrate’s position. The committee eventually voted unanimously to advance a bill that includes the proposal.

“Those numbers are what drive and help determine how busy you are or how many judicial officers you need,” Davis said.

Judge Scott Sirk of Hancock County Circuit Court noted the caseload errors were found to be limited to cases in Superior Court 1 and not Circuit Court or Superior Court 2, where Judge Dan Marshall presides.

“Former Judge Castetter found the error, and she and Judge Davis have worked diligently to correct the staff error,” Sirk said.

Now that actual caseload figures have been discovered, Davis believes the county should keep the commissioner position even after a magistrate is appointed.

Castetter agrees and believes now is the time for the county to be proactive and think about growth when determining what the county courts really need.

“The addition of the new jail adds lots of potential,” Castetter said. “Maybe put a courtroom there for initial hearings.”

Such a move would go a long way toward planning for the future and determining what’s best for defendants, Castetter added.

Prosecutor Brent Eaton agreed and said it’s important for county officials to look ahead. He likes the idea of having both a magistrate and a court commissioner.

“Yes, I believe we do need both,” Eaton said.

The three judges will pass their recommendation to county officials if and when the magistrate’s position is officially approved this spring.

Marshall, who has a fast-paced, heavy workload of misdemeanors, lower-level felony and civil cases, is not in favor of having both positions, he told the Daily Reporter last week. Marshall could not be reached for comment on the revised caseload numbers.

The courts overseen by Davis and Sirk hear more complex, serious cases and would benefit from having both a commissioner and magistrate, Davis said.

Before the discovery of the undocumented cases, Sirk said it would be nice to have the commissioner’s salary for other court needs, including staff raises. He and Marshall have already presented to county and state officials the idea of transitioning the court commissioner’s seat into a magistrate. The move would be a net savings to the county, because the magistrate’s position is funded by the state. The funding for the commissioner’s post would revert to the county budget.

Sirk recommends if Superior Court 1 is in need of additional help, Davis could always hire his own commissioner.