Ingham County officials move to clear lengthy court backlog with new courtroom, visiting judge
Nearly two and a half years after the COVID-19 pandemic first halted jury trials throughout Michigan, Ingham County Circuit Court has an estimated 900 felony cases awaiting court dates for various reasons — but now officials hope to whittle that number down.
Officials announced last week that starting Sept. 12, the court will open a courthouse annex in downtown Lansing and a visiting judge will work on a “long-term temporary basis” to deal with the backlog, not just in trials, but sentencings and other hearings as well.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Bryan Crenshaw, chairperson of the Ingham County Board of Commissioners, in a news release. “The visiting judge project is a unique and effective step toward resolving criminal matters that have remained pending because of court operation delays due to COVID-19. Resolving these matters is important for defendants, victims, and society.”
Judge David Jordon, a retired East Lansing District Court judge, will serve as the visiting judge for “at least the first several months,” the release said.
Officials have been renovating the building since June using funds outside of the county’s general fund. The sources include $2.7 million of the county’s federal American Rescue Plan Act funds and $100,000 from a Michigan State Police’s Coronavirus Emergency Supplement Fund grant. According to the county website, Ingham County received $56.8 million in direct local recovery assistance from ARPA, signed by the Biden Administration in March 2021. The funds must be spent by the end of 2024.
Cases backed up in the pandemic’s early days, when officials halted in-person jury trials in March 2020 to slow the spread of COVID. Due to the moratorium — which lasted until June 2021 in Ingham County — older cases remained pending as new felony cases advanced to circuit court.
Not all 900 cases are awaiting trial, Ingham County Chief Circuit Judge Joyce Draganchuk said this week. She estimated that's the case for about 500 of defendants. Another roughly 250 are awaiting sentencing hearings and the remainder of the felony cases in the court were entered the system in the last 90 days.
In determining which cases to clear first from the backlog, Draganchuk said, judges considered older cases and those in which an individual was incarcerated or otherwise in police custody. Still, she said, some defendants' attorneys have filed motions demanding speedy trials.
While Michigan law entitles residents to a trial within 180 days of filing such a motion, a state appellate court ruled that the right did not supersede COVID-19 orders.
"The Michigan Court of Appeals has said COVID orders ceasing jury trials do not count in the speedy trial equation, and rightly so, because how can you hold that against the prosecution?" Draganchuk said.
Jordon — and his eventual successor — will handle older felony cases in which the defendant is not in police custody — leaving others for sitting judges — Draganchuk said, because the Ingham County Sheriff's Office informed court officials the annex does not have the capability to provide secure holding space for prisoners.
This isn't the first attempt to resolve the backlog. In September 2021, Ingham County also brought in visiting judge Geoffrey Neithercut. But without a courtroom of his own, he could only try cases when a courtroom was absent.
The annex, located at 426 S. Walnut St., across from the Veterans Memorial Courthouse, provides enough space to conduct additional hearings. The renovated three-story office building also includes a jury assembly room and staff offices for the visiting judge.
County officials hope to clear the backlog before the annex's three-year lease expires, Draganchuk said.
Communication improves, speeds cases
Defense attorney William Amadeo said trying to alleviate the backlog has improved communication outside of the courtroom between prosecutors and defense attorneys.
"We really got to study cases more thoroughly despite the backlog," Amadeo said. "We were forced to do more things outside the courtroom that really made the parties come together for positive resolutions, which were fair for both prosecution and defense, in my opinion."
Those resolutions have included pleas and dismissals when the defendant isn't a threat to public safety, Amadeo said.
As of this past spring, about 75% of Ingham County jail inmates were either unsentenced or awaiting trial, said Scott Hughes, juvenile justice and community outreach coordinator for the Ingham County Prosecutor's Office. He said the county has 29 pending murder cases, comprising a significant number of those being held.
Across all types of cases, officials said, defendants are more likely to accept a plea when a trial is nearing.
"Typically, people will plead because they don't want to go to trial. They worry that they might have a longer sentence. If they don't accept the plea and they contest the case, they go to trial, but if a person isn't facing an impending trial, they have less incentive to plea," Hughes said.
Judges also attempted to chip away at the case total by conducting pretrial conferences multiple times, Draganchuk said.
"It's hard to explain exactly how that moves cases. The judge, then, knows what the status is and ... it puts a little pressure on people if you're waiting for that," she said.
Fewer issues in other counties
Elsewhere in Greater Lansing, Eaton County officials say their local courts have no backlog due to the pandemic. According to the Census Bureau, the county has a population of about 109,000 people, compared to the approximately 284,000 people living in Ingham County.
"Our jury trial procedures were adjusted regularly based on safety measures and recommendations to ensure we were mindful of the rise in COVID within our county," Eaton County Circuit Court Administrator Amy Etzel said in an email.
And in Clinton County, population about 79,000, judges are hearing their final backlogged jury trial this week, Chief Judge Lisa Sullivan said.
"We, in Clinton County, started doing jury trials earlier than others in the tri-county region. We were able to facilitate that and so, within the last year, really made up lost ground," Sullivan said.
Contact reporter Jared Weber at 517-582-3937 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: Ingham County has 900 pending felony cases, a new judge and court could help clear that