Plan aims at moving criminal cases, reducing jail population

In a budget era that has seen little if any expansion of any Consolidated Government department for years, the currently proposed fiscal 2016 budget includes adding lawyers to both the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices.

A project called the Rapid Resolution Initiative was crafted by Chief Superior Court Judge Gil McBride, District Attorney Julia Slater and Chief Public Defender Moffett Flournoy and their staffs. It involves hiring three new public defenders, two new assistant district attorneys, a DA investigator and a DA clerk to help move cases more quickly through the system and relieve pressure on a chronically crowded county jail.

The proposal, which is included and funded in Mayor Teresa Tomlinson’s proposed budget, would cost about $458,000, but is projected to save about $440,000 in jail costs, practically paying for itself. It was presented to Columbus Council as it met Tuesday as the Budget Review Committee, and it was well received.

“We’re very excited about this,” said Skip Henderson, chairman of the budget panel. “Not only because it’s already funded in the budget, but just in terms of overall fairness and equity. It’s the right thing to do.”

It also, not surprisingly, has the support of the DA’s and PD’s offices, which otherwise are usually on different sides. Even in their mutual support, they view the benefits from different angles.

Slater said in addition to the obvious benefits of moving cases through the system and resolving them, it should offer benefits for crime victims and their families, too.

“For our victims, it means more rapid resolutions for their cases, too,” Slater said. “It not only gives them closure emotionally, the ability to maybe put the crime that was committed against them behind them, but also if they are awaiting restitution from a defendant, then it gets those restitution orders more quickly, so that they can move on with their lives.”

McBride said it will help the county better live up to its constitutional obligations, as well as save taxpayer money.

“The first priority is to address the rights that persons charged with crimes have to a speedy resolution of their cases, which is guaranteed by the constitution,” McBride said. “That is certainly our first priority, making sure the cases are dealt with speedily and efficiently, but certainly in a way that is fair and just and attuned to our constitutional responsibilities and their rights.”

Steve Craft, chief assistant public defender, presented the initiative to councilors. He told them it would allow the systeme to move more simple cases, which now languish for six months before resolution, down to two months. The ultimate savings that could produce could be in the millions, he said.

“If we can get (jail population) down from an average of 900 inmates to 800, we may not have to come back and build a $15 million new jail,” Craft said. “That’s a capital savings. On a more immediate scale, if we reduce it from 900 to 700, we can close an entire floor of the existing jail and reallocate those personnel.”

Sheriff John Darr, whose job includes responsibility for the county jail, calls himself a “big proponent” of the initiative.

“If it does what they say, it will have a lot of benefits, because it’s designed to move cases through the court system,” Darr said. “As they move these through the courts, it will drive the jail population down. So I support it.”

But Darr said the city should take a cautious approach and see if the initiative is as effective in reality as it appears on paper.

“I’m a big proponent of it because it has what I think on paper what could help get cases through the court system and drive down the inmate populate,” Darr said. “But we should evaluate this thing after six months or a year.”