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Alpena courts face logjam as criminal cases on the rise

News Photo by Julie Riddle Judge Ed Black presides over a court hearing on Monday in Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court.

ALPENA — A rising number of criminal cases is flowing into Alpena’s highest court, which, between the court’s struggles with timeliness and complications of the coronavirus, could create a logjam in years to come.

In 2019, 273 new criminal, civil, and appeals cases were filed in Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court, according to data released by the State Court Administrative Office.

That number reflects a slight dip in an upward trend in new criminal cases to reach the court the past three years.

Of the 434 cases handled by the court last year — including almost 150 left over from the year before — more than a quarter were left to be resolved in 2020 — a year in which courts have faced unprecedented challenges because of the pandemic.

FALLING BEHIND

The total number of criminal cases handled by Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court increased gradually between 2015 and 2018, rising from 229 in 2015 to 300 in 2018.

In 2019, the number dropped somewhat, down by 22 cases over the previous year.

When 2020 data is released, the number of new cases presented to the court will be about the same as in previous years, but the number of cases that are finished during the year will be drastically lower, predicted Alpena County Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski.

Why?

“One word,” Muszynski said. “COVID.”

Courts closed briefly when the coronavirus pandemic reached Michigan in March. Though they reopened quickly, holding many hearings virtually, courts have been hampered in their efforts to move swiftly through cases because of technology difficulties, attorneys’ inability to meet with clients, and other complications.

Alpena courts have been behind state guidelines for timeliness for at least four years, according to state court data.

Court officials attribute the lack of court speed to parties being unprepared for hearings, human error, and — at least this year — unexpected complications presented by the pandemic.

People can’t be left sitting in jail while courts are sidelined by the virus, said Judge Ed Black.

Recent rising numbers of coronavirus infections have re-shuttered courts and canceled jury trials around the state. Like other courts, Alpena’s courts may soon need to restrict courtroom attendance, but hearings have to continue and become increasingly productive for justice to be served fairly, Black said.

Court staff have made plans to enable jury trials to continue, including moving furniture and installing safety barriers in the courtroom and pursuing the possibility of holding trials via videoconference.

A trial scheduled to be held this week, and another in early December, had to be canceled because of recent Michigan Department of Health and Human Services restrictions on indoor gatherings. Another trial date in December is still a go, but that could change as testing numbers climb, Black said.

If a trial is canceled, other cases will flow in to fill the space that becomes vacant, said Black, who conducts the current packed hearing days with a calendar at his elbow to schedule followup hearings immediately to keep court moving along.

Check out the interactive graphic below with information on court caseloads. Story continues below graphic.

SHIFTING COURTS, SAME EXPECTATIONS

In 2003, Alpena-area circuit courts were among several circuits statewide where judge assignments were reconfigured by the state.

At the time, the 26th Circuit Court consisted of Alpena, Alcona, Montmorency, and Presque Isle counties, under the jurisdiction of two circuit judges.

After a study of caseloads at the time, the state ordered that Montmorency and Alpena counties remain the 26th Circuit, sharing one judge.

Alcona County became part of the 23rd Circuit Court, joining counties to its south and west, and Presque Isle County was joined with Cheboygan County as part of the 53rd Circuit Court.

County-specific caseload data is not available from before the change, and most current court personnel were not in place at the time of the restructuring.

Periodic reviews of all state courts, however, have determined that Alpena-area courts, with their current structure, should be able to handle the number of cases brought before them, according to Judicial Resources Recommendations reports compiled by the State Court Administrative Office.

Caseload numbers do not account for divorce, personal protection order, or other domestic relation cases, which account for roughly another 400 cases per year in Alpena County. The court also addresses several hundred juvenile cases per year.

OUTLYING COUNTIES

Circuit courts in surrounding counties handle about a quarter the number of cases addressed by Alpena courts.

In both Montmorency County — with a population of about 9,250 — and the larger Presque Isle County — population about 12,700 — total caseload in circuit courts averages 100 cases per year.

Criminal cases in Presque Isle County climbed from 50 cases in 2017 to 80 in 2019. The number of civil cases decreased by a third in that time.

Civil case numbers have also dropped since 2015 in Montmorency County, where criminal cases typically make up only half or fewer of cases brought to the court.

In Alcona County, with a population just over 10,000, the court has averaged a caseload of 127 cases over the past five years, 25% higher than similarly sized Montmorency County.

Alcona county hit a high of 102 criminal cases in 2017, though that number fell by a third in the following two years.

Timeliness data for Alcona, Montmorency, and Presque Isle counties indicated those counties, for the most part, have been able to meet state guidelines for speed in handling cases.

——

Alpena County 26th Circuit Court, by the numbers

A look at the 2019 caseload of the 26th Circuit Court

Pending cases, Jan. 1, 2019: 142

New cases filed: 273

Cases reopened during 2019: 19

Cases completed: 306

Total caseload in 2019: 434

Guilty plea: 178

Jury verdicts: 7

Source: State Court Administrative Office caseload reports

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