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Alpena courts miss state targets for timeliness

News Photo by Julie Riddle An attorney and a defendant stand before Chief Judge Benjamin Bolser in the 26th Circuit Court in Alpena recently.

ALPENA — The wheels of justice turn slowly — too slowly, in Alpena County, according to state data.

The county’s 26th Circuit Court lags significantly behind its counterparts around the state in moving people through the system quickly, data recently posted by the Michigan State Court Administrative Office shows.

Participants in most Alpena Circuit Court cases — and especially civil and paternity/child support cases — have to wait longer than they should to see their cases come to an end, based on state court guidelines.

That lag time can be chalked up to human error, unprepared court participants, and unexpected delays, court officials say.

The workload of Alpena courts ought to be manageable, according to a 2019 assessment of judicial workload by the State Court Administrative Office.

Criminal court matters are only slightly slower in Alpena than elsewhere. However, other types of cases have dragged through Circuit Court, compared to state averages.

Alpena County was well below state average in moving paternity and child support filing cases through the court system for at least the past four years, according to court timeliness reports.

In courts in the rest of the state — including those of similar-sized communities with a similar court structure — an average of 76% of paternity and child support cases were resolved within five months.

In Alpena County, 26% of cases were concluded within that timeframe in 2019.

By eight months — by which time courts should have resolved nearly all cases, according to state court guidelines — 72% of Alpena County’s paternity and child support cases were resolved. Cases were similarly behind schedule for at least the previous three years.

Stacey Stewart, child support investigator for the Alpena County Prosecutor’s Office, said support cases are often slowed because parents can’t resolve arguments about custody time.

Cases might move faster if a neutral agency that could help parents negotiate terms were available in Alpena, said Stewart, who handles some, but not all, child support cases. Other parents are represented by hired attorneys or represent themselves.

Civil filings — lawsuits filed by an individual or business over matters such as unpaid rent or medical bills, negligence, or broken contracts — also lag behind state timeliness averages in Alpena’s Circuit Court.

Over the past four years, more than half of civil cases have lingered in court more than a year, and a quarter were still not resolved after two years. Those cases were handled slightly faster in 2019 than in previous years.

Alpena’s pace in handling criminal cases was mostly on par with the state average in 2017, with 63% of cases resolved within three months and nearly all resolved within 10 months. That pace slowed in 2019, with 13% of cases still not concluded after 10 months — the lowest 10-month rate among similar counties.

MISSING INFO, MISSING CLIENTS

Benjamin Bolser, chief judge over Alpena and Montmorency courts since November 2019, said he inherited a court that had lagged behind state averages for case speed for some time.

In a typical busy criminal court day in the 26th Circuit Court, 30-some defendants are scheduled to appear before the judge. It’s not uncommon for many of those hearings to be postponed, often because an attorney doesn’t have or just received needed information to properly represent his or her client.

Hearings are also regularly pushed to the next court day because a defendant doesn’t show up, or because a plea deal is possible but an agreement has not yet been reached.

Even carefully monitored cases can stall unexpectedly, Bolser said, citing the recent postponement of the scheduled two-week trial of Heather Winfield. That trial of a former teacher accused of sexually assaulting a student was delayed less than two weeks before jury selection by the last-minute arrival of evidence.

Another recent Alpena trial in a Child Protective Services case was halted in the midst of jury selection when one of the parties didn’t show up, claiming to be sick, Bolser said.

‘PEDAL TO THE METAL’

Circuit courts in Alcona, Montmorency, and Presque Isle counties were mostly on pace with the rest of the state.

Presque Isle County moved more slowly than other counties at the outset of criminal cases in recent years but concluded most cases within 10 months, as recommended by the state.

Montmorency County moved slowly through divorce cases in 2017 and 2018, and Alcona County struggled with paternity and support cases in 2019.

In Alpena’s 88th District Court in 2018, almost all cases are moved through court at or just below state averages.

The state recently set guidelines and provided funding to improve the legal defense offered to people who can’t afford attorneys.

Attorneys working harder — which also requires more time per case on the part of the Prosecutor’s Office, which already handles 1,200-plus cases per year — will, it is hoped, provide justice for more defendants, but may also make cases take longer, said Alpena County Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski.

In 2019, her office was promised a fourth full-time prosecutor to help with the workload and keep cases moving through the court. When county commissioners asked each department to cut their budgets, though, that potential hire was eliminated.

Alpena has some catching up to do after some bumps in the road in the past 12 months, said Ed Black, 26th Circuit judge since he was appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in February.

The court will have to keep up a full slate of court hearings and set firm timelines for cases to get it up to speed with the rest of the state, the judge said.

Other than that, Black said, the best fix is “just putting the pedal to the metal and trying to work as hard as possible to get things pushed through.”

Court timeliness, by the numbers

∫ 75%: The share of paternity and support cases that should be completed within 147 days

∫ 26%: The share of those cases completed by Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court in that timeframe in 2019

∫ 70%: The share of civil cases that should be completed within one year

∫ 45%: The average share of civil cases completed within one year in Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court since 2016

∫ 98%: The share of criminal cases that should be completed within 301 days.

∫ 87%: The share of those cases completed in that time in 2019 in Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court.

Source: State Court Administrative Office.

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