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Fewer filings, newer trends

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The number of cases filed in the state courts dropped slightly in 2009 from the previous year, but the nearly two million filings still amounted to the second-highest number ever for Indiana.

Some interesting trends can also be found in the 1,734-page Judicial Service Report released by the Division of State Court Administration in mid-November, such as the upward trend in prosecutions that some describe as being a symptom of “offense inflation.”

baker-john-g-mug Baker

But overall, the annual report shows that Indiana remains on pace with what it’s seen in past years, and the trends and numbers are likely to bear even more interest in the coming months as state lawmakers scrutinize how to cut costs and craft a two-year budget.

With an overall 16.5 percent increase in criminal and civil cases filed between 2000 and 2009, the specific number of cases was 1.95 million in 2009 – dropping from the record-breaking amount of more than 2 million a year earlier. The figure for 2009 includes 369 civil jury trials and 225 murder trials, as well as more than 385,000 pro se litigants in both civil and criminal courts. The mortgage foreclosure filings increased about 20 percent during the 10-year report period, though they dipped lower last year than the year before by almost 9 percent.

On the criminal side, the report shows that during the past decade the number of criminal cases has gone up more than 17 percent while the state’s population has increased less than 6 percent. Some counties saw more dramatic criminal case hikes, such as southern Indiana counties doubling during that time period. While the prison population nationally last year dropped 0.4 percent, it rose 5.3 percent in Indiana – the largest percentage increase in any state in the country.

That is also likely why the Indiana General Assembly is now studying the issue of sentencing.

Indiana Court of Appeals Chief Judge John Baker said the numbers of criminal cases and subsequent incarcerations reflect a more aggressive use of the courts. More bad behavior has become criminalized and punishments have escalated, with the number of criminal penal code statutes going up from about 200 in 1977 to nearly 2,000 today.

Reflecting the phenomenon of “offense inflation,” or when violations have escalated from infraction to misdemeanor and misdemeanor to felony, one of the biggest increases came with Class D felonies – rising by 32 percent from 39,114 in 1977 to 51,524 in 2009.

What does that mean for the courts? Overcrowded dockets, an increase in the jail and prison populations, and more work for the already-pressured prosecutors and public defenders as well as for private criminal defense attorneys. Weighted caseloads used to measure need for new judicial officers have risen, but the budgeted money available for those new resources has shrunk incredibly and left many counties struggling.

Last year, Indiana paid nearly $400 million to operate the courts, and that could be a significant topic in the next legislative session as lawmakers look to cut costs and craft a budget which might include court reform ideas being pushed by the Hoosier judiciary. Chief Judge Baker and others at the appellate level have told lawmakers that the overall court costs could be reduced by streamlining the judiciary at the local level.

The interim Commission on Courts recommended some potential court reform legislation for consideration during the 2011 session, but whether that goes anywhere has yet to be determined.•
 

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