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A decade of court data is revealed

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Hoosier trial court judges don’t need a 1,782-page multi-volume report to tell them caseloads have increased in the past decade or that in recent years, Indiana has seen a sharp increase in cases involving abused or neglected children and parental rights terminations.

They recognize that trend by seeing the faces that appear before them in courtrooms throughout Indiana each week. And the number-filled report only confirms what they’ve suspected is true – many judicial officers are working at maximum capacity.

But what the annual Judicial Service Report, released in December 2011 by the Indiana Supreme Court’s Division of State Court Administration, provides individual judges is proof that they are not alone. The statistics reveal that similar trends are playing out throughout the state.

“The work of the courts cannot be summed up in numbers, but the 2010 statistics report does offer a snapshot of the volume, breadth, challenges and success stories in each of the courthouses in Indiana’s 92 counties,” Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard said.

One clear piece of data offered from the report: the state needs more judges.

Weighted caseload statistics show that Indiana needs nearly 600 judicial officers but only has 441, meaning that judges are working at 135 percent based on the number of people handling the caseload statewide.

The comprehensive report shows a dip in the number of new criminal and civil case filings in 2010 as compared to 2009. The report covers the final year of a decade that saw a steady increase in criminal and civil cases in the state’s courts. While Indiana’s population grew by 6 percent from 2000 to 2010, the number of criminal cases increased by nearly three times that amount.

Ten years ago, the courts were seeing about the same number of cases filed each year until a gradual dip began in 2003 that lasted three years. Filings rose again starting in 2006 and hit a record level of more than 2 million filings in 2008. But in the past year, the small decrease from about 1.9 million new cases in 2009 to about 1.8 million in 2010 may reflect more accurate record keeping rather than a slowdown in court activity.

The report also shows a 27 percent decrease in murder filings from 2002 to 2010. Mortgage foreclosure filings are down but remain well-above where they were a decade ago.

“If you dig down deep enough, almost everything is still at record levels except for traffic violations,” Shepard said.

Traffic violation numbers are a bit suspect, the chief justice said. In the past, local courts were erroneously recording the same infraction multiple times. That’s getting corrected with the use of the Odyssey case management system that’s being implemented in local courts.courts

In reviewing the annual court numbers, Shepard pointed to the statistics on neglected and abused children as one of the areas that stands out the most to him. In 2010, Indiana saw 12,160 filings that were Child In Need of Services cases. That’s up from about 9,000 cases filed in 2000.

Shepard said the near-record number of CHINS cases likely reflects a more aggressive approach by the state’s child-protection services, and the spikes follow with times when the state hired more child welfare workers to manage those cases. There aren’t necessarily more instances of abuse or neglect happening, but rather the situations are being recognized and addressed more frequently, he said.

That more aggressive approach may also explain the 126 percent increase during the past decade in the number of cases involving parental rights terminations, the report shows.

“It keeps those children from getting lost in the system,” Shepard said, referring to the state’s more aggressive approach on these types of cases.

He also noted the rise in the number of court-appointed special advocates for children, which was at 3,268 volunteers in 2010, but could rise even higher because of the record 1,010 new CASA volunteers trained in 2011.

“That’s a good thing,” Shepard said. “It means a couple thousand more children who didn’t have advocates before now will.”

In dealing with increased caseloads but fewer resources to add new courts and judicial officers, state court officials said the judiciary has had to become more creative and efficient in how they’re administering justice. David Remondini, chief deputy executive director of the Division of State Court Administration, said the chief justice’s leadership in asking judges to volunteer their time and effort on specific projects and tasks in order to work more efficiently has been a positive move that has helped the state handle the caseload changes. When people volunteer for projects and tasks, it is typically because they know the chief justice believes in it and is passionate about the topic, and that it’s not something that will be a passing fad or a quick headline.

“That leadership creates efficiency for our court system,” Remondini said.

In Marion County, Superior Judge Robyn Moberly said the county system has worked creatively and efficiently for years despite the disproportionate share of workload that judges face.

That means utilizing an e-filing system for mortgage foreclosure and collection cases and assigning the judges a narrow range of case types to establish areas of expertise they can use to better move cases along.

“Thanks to many initiatives that steer cases away from courtroom conflict, we’re able to handle the volume very well, in my opinion,” she said. “We’re able to maintain a high level of job satisfaction for our judges.  In fact, in my court, our number of pending cases has dropped significantly in the past four years while the new filings have increased, and I think that’s partly because of the growth of mediation and because we take advantage of all of the alternatives to courtroom conflict that our county offers.”

The multi-volume 2010 Indiana Judicial Service Report can be found at the Supreme Court’s website at www.courts.in.gov.•

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  • Fewer judges
    I disagree that Indiana needs more judges. I do realize that there are likely things I don't know, but having been under Court jurisdiction for the past 15 years for no other reason than having been married and having children ... I just don't believe that statement is true. I think that PEOPLE need to be more informed about marriage and similar relationships ... I can guarantee (as I prefer to learn negative lessons vicariously, when possible)that had I KNOWN ANYTHING about "the Family Court system", I would certainly have thought long and hard before marrying. Any system that allows children to be torn away from parents ONLY because one spouse and, from what I am now told was an unethical attorney, who was fine sending intimidating letters to me threatening felony charges (for trying to get a protective order when child exchanges were always yelling, threat filled experiences that terrorized our children) or totally blowing off my request to have my car returned so that I could resume visitation ... instead, I received threats of conversion to be filed against me if I didn't return paperwork (relating to spouse's trade in of a jointly titled vehicle during marriage and purchase of one solely titled in his). I am of the opinion that many divorces are made because people lack skills and they lack an appreciation of reality. However, there is now a huge industry built on the failure of parents and the failure of marriages. Since strong, healthy families supposedly are the bedrock of a strong, healthy nation, I can only surmise that something is totally awry ... we need less judges ... we need more wisdom, guidance and good sense ... and to leave jurisprudence as a course of last resort for truly hopeless cases.

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