Judicial system is overloaded - KTTC Rochester, Austin, Mason City News, Weather and Sports

By Fanna Haile-Selassie

Judicial system is overloaded

ROCHESTER, MN (FOX 47) -- Some state lawmakers like representative Andy Welti say they're predicting Minnesota's 2009 budget deficit to reach about $2 billion. That's affecting several county judicial branches, as county prosecutors and public defense attorneys continue to see their workload increase and their staff numbers decrease.

According to Olmsted County attorney Mark Ostrem, things are not looking good. He says his prosecutors have too many cases, the department doesn't have enough people, and budget cuts are breaking the judicial system.

"At this point, I'm not sure how much more we can out of the system upstairs and keep it running."

Ostrem says he's seen his department lose several prosecutors and the whole county judicial branch make sacrifice after sacrifice. But now, Ostrem says, the system can't go on like this much longer.

"We're seeing the entire criminal justice system kind of slowing down, and I feel like there's this big bubble that's just moving farther and farther out."

Ostrem says the lag in the court system is so severe, there are cases from 2006 and 2007 that still have not been tried.

According to Karen Duncan, the 3rd District's Chief Public Defender, the public defense department is faring the same, if not worse.

"Often our defenders are not in just one courtroom, but they're running back and forth from courtroom to courtroom," says Duncan. "And I've seen situations where we've had lawyers scheduled in 4 different courtrooms in the courthouse at one time."

Public defense office had to stop accepting child protection cases to reduce attorney's workload. Now, public prosecutors have to pick and chose which cases go first. The smaller misdemeanor cases may have to wait. While people can request a speedy trial, Ostrem says they should heavily weigh the outcome of that decision.

"You gotta wonder how fair that trial might be, from the defendant's standpoint. We're looking at public defenders that say they're way overlooked. That don't have an opportunity to prepare their cases, and if we add on a bunch of speedy trials, something's gotta give."

Both offices are putting their hopes on 2009's bonding bill. They say the money is desperately needed.

Ostrem says their cases have become more serious as well. Rochester has had five homicides this year, and Ostrem says that means bigger workloads on public defenders and prosecutors who have to prepare the cases and interview witnesses.

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