The amount of criminal cases filed in Highland County Common Pleas Court experienced a decline for the second year in a row after three years on an incline, according to the court’s annual report recently released by Judge Rocky Coss.
The amount of criminal case filings in 2017 was “comparable” to 2016, according to the report, following a “dramatic decrease” of 29 percent from 2015 to 2016.
In the three years prior to 2015, criminal case filings had been steadily increasing at a rate of approximately 15 percent, according to the report.
The judge said on Thursday he had no explanation for the trend.
“I’m not the one who brings the cases, so I can’t explain why,” he said.
Highland County Prosecuting Attorney Anneka Collins said the decline in criminal case filings comes from fewer cases being sent to her office by law enforcement.
“I can only present to a grand jury what I’m given by law enforcement,” she said. “In the last two years, there’s been a significant drop in the number of cases given to my office for presentation to grand jury.”
Collins said she has noticed no decline or increase in grand juries deciding to return indictments.
The following is the judge’s report in its entirety:
The Supreme Court has adopted time guidelines within which cases should be completed. For example, the time guideline for criminal cases is six months from the date of arraignment. The guideline for foreclosures to be complete is 12 months from date of filing and for most other civil cases it is 24 months. There have been no past pending criminal cases in the General Division of this Court since April of 2009 and no past pending civil cases since March of 2010. There have been no past pending cases in the Domestic Relations Division since March of 2010.
Annual case filings
The caseload of the General Division of the Court declined by 3.6 percent compared to 2016, while the Domestic Relations caseload increased by 2.3 percent over 2016. There were 482 new and reopened cases in the General Division in 2017 compared to 500 in 2016. The total of new and reopened cases in Domestic Relations was 345 compared to 337 cases in 2016. The total number of cases in both divisions for 2017 was 827, compared to 837 in 2016.
Case filings in the court have been declining steadily since 2008 when there were 935 cases filed in the General Division and 579 in the Domestic Relations Division for a total of 1,514 cases. This trend is more than the statewide trends as noted in the 2016 Ohio Supreme Court Statistical Report Summary which are discussed under the various categories in this report.
As of Dec. 31, 2017, there were 162 total cases pending in the General Division, compared to 171 pending as of Dec. 31, 2016. In the Domestic Relations Division, there were 91 cases pending at the end of 2017 compared to 75 at the end of 2016.
Criminal cases filings in 2017 were comparable to 2016. There were 194 new and reopened criminal cases in the General Division in 2017 compared to 197 in 2016. There was a dramatic decrease of 29 percent in criminal cases filed in 2016 from 2015.
These statistics are based on the requirements for filing reports with the Ohio Supreme Court. A new case represents arraignment in a new case or a case reopened which had been closed prior to adjudication. This does not include indictments that were filed with the clerk but not served or cases bound over to the grand jury in which indictments were not returned. Therefore, there is a variance between the Clerk of Courts’ numbers and this report.
From 2008 through 2011, the number of new and reopened criminal cases filed decreased each year. From 2012 through 2015, the number of criminal cases increased approximately 15 percent each year until the decrease in 2016. The average number of criminal cases filed over the past 10 years is 220. According to the 2016 Ohio Supreme Court’s statistical report summary, criminal court cases had been declining steadily over the previous 10 years up to 2016, but increased by 5 percent statewide from 2015. Overall, there was a statewide decrease in criminal cases of 17 percent from 2007 through 2016, while the decrease for the same period in Highland County was 40 percent.
It should be noted that the statistics regarding criminal cases do not include any post-sentencing proceedings in criminal cases such as probation violations, restitution hearings, modification of probation conditions, judicial release hearings, sealing of records and other proceedings that occur in many criminal cases after they are closed for Ohio Supreme Court reporting purposes.
Criminal case completion time
Criminal cases are considered open when the defendant is arraigned on the indictment or bill of information. The time for a criminal case to be completed from the date of arraignment until final disposition increased slightly from 2015 to 2016. The average time to complete a criminal case for 2016 was 76 days compared to 2015, which was 69 days. For the year 2007, the average number of days from arraignment to completion was 202 days. This represents a reduction of approximately 62 percent. Cases in 2017 are not included in this report since many remain open at the end of 2017.
Impact of changes in sentencing laws
The budget bill H.B. 49 contained a number of substantive changes to felony sentencing laws including implementation of the Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison (TCAP) program advocated by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. This law provides that in counties that enter into TCAP agreements, the common pleas court judges will not sentence non-violent, non-sex offense fifth-degree felony offenders to prison and those counties shall receive a certain amount of money to be used at the county level for alternative sanctions such as county jail time and treatment. The program is voluntary for all counties during the 2018 fiscal year, but will become mandatory for the largest 10 counties in Ohio for the 2019 fiscal year and remain voluntary for the other counties.
After consulting with the county sheriff and county commissioners, Judge Coss informed ODRC that Highland County would not participate in TCAP due to the fact that the funds being offered were entirely inadequate to cover the costs of housing felony offenders in the local jail and providing local programs to treat the offenders. It would also prohibit the judge from sentencing repeat offenders to prison.
H.B. 49 also enacted another change in the law specifically designed to prevent common pleas judges from sentencing fourth- and fifth-degree felony offenders to prison. Under the new law, if a fourth- or fifth-degree felony offender is placed on community control supervision (probation) and violates the conditions of supervision, the common pleas court cannot revoke the community control and sentence the offender to serve the appropriate prison sentence unless the violation is for a new felony offense or a non-technical violation. This means that the ability of common pleas judges to enforce compliance with conditions of community control supervision is being undermined by the ODRC’s announced goal of reducing prison commitments for most fourth- and fifth-degree felonies.
New grant program for treatment
The Smart Ohio grant program was terminated in 2017. This grant funded treatment of felony offenders for substance abuse and addiction. With the approval of the court, the Highland County Probation Department applied for and was awarded a Justice Reinvestment Incentive Grant from ODRC that is designed to help reduce the number of offenders who are sentenced to prison terms for fourth- and fifth-degree felonies. The goal of the grant is to reduce the number of fourth- and fifth-degree felony offenders sentenced to prison over the 17-month period of Dec. 1, 2017 until April 30, 2019.
The average number of fourth- and fifth-degree felony offenders that were sentenced to prison from this court over the past five years is 67 and the number for fiscal year 2017 was 61. If this average were to continue over the 17-month period of the grant, there would be approximately 95 offenders sentenced to prison. The goal of the grant is to reduce the number of prison commitments for fourth- and fifth-degree felony offenders to 75 over the grant period by utilizing grant funds to provide medically assisted treatment for opiate addiction in combination with existing treatment services available locally as well as treatment for other addictions.
The court will continue to utilize local outpatient treatment providers and inpatient programs including the STAR Community Justice Center and other residential treatment facilities available locally and in other counties.
Foreclosure filings decreased for the eighth consecutive year, which was the largest factor in the decrease in the overall case total for the general division. There were 92 new foreclosure cases and four reopened cases in 2017 for a total of 96. This compares to 116 new cases and four reopened cases for a total of 120 in 2016. Foreclosure filings peaked in 2009 when there were 381 new cases filed and seven cases reopened for a total of 388. According to the Ohio Supreme Court 2016 Statistical Report Summary, foreclosures declined statewide from 2009 to 2016 by 55 percent. The decline in this court over that same period was 69 percent.
Other civil cases
There were 192 other types of new and reopened civil cases filed in 2017 compared to 193 filed in 2016. In 2008, there were 295 cases filed in this category, which represents a reduction of 35 percent in case filings in 2016, which is in line with the statewide trend during that period. The Ohio Supreme Court 2016 statistical report summary noted that there was a statewide decrease of 36 percent in civil case filings from 2008 until 2016.
Civil case completion time
The tentative average number of days to complete all civil cases filed in 2016 was 144.50 days compared to 2015, which was 140.63. In 2007, the average time to complete a civil case was 167.89 days. This represents a 14-percent reduction. The data for 2016 cases is not final as there are some civil cases with two-year time guidelines that were still pending at the end of 2017.
Judge Coss presided over jury trials in five criminal cases in 2017. The Ohio Supreme Court’s 2016 Statistical Report Summary states that at the national level, approximately 2 percent of civil cases and approximately 5 percent of criminal cases are resolved by jury trials. There have been only four civil jury trials in the past nine years in the Highland County Common Pleas Court, which is well below the national average. There have been approximately 77 criminal jury trials in the past nine years representing 4 percent of the total criminal cases during that period which is closer to the national average of 5 percent.
Domestic relations cases
There were 224 new cases and 121 reopened cases in 2017 for a total of 345 cases, while there were 228 new and 109 reopened cases filed in 2016 for a total of 337. Reopened cases usually are due to motions for modification of child custody/visitation decrees, modification of child support, motions to enforce property issues in a prior decree or motions to cite for contempt of orders in prior decrees. The domestic relations case filings have averaged 343 new and reopened cases per year over the past five years.
In 2008, there were 579 new and reopened cases filed in the Domestic Relations Division. The 2016 total case filings is a 42-percent reduction since 2008. This is more than double the decline for all categories statewide during the same period.
Domestic relations case completion time
The court calculates the average time from filing or reopening until disposition in six categories of domestic relations cases. The average time of completion for divorce cases filed in 2016 was 170 days. The dissolution of marriage average completion was 49 days and change of custody cases was 138 days. The case completion average for domestic violence cases was 15 days while the total for foreign child support cases was 48.5 days. The average for other post decree cases was 102 days. The average completion time for all six case categories was 101.6 days. The data for 2017 is not yet final as some cases with one-year or 18-month time guidelines were still pending at the end of the year.
Video arraignments and hearings
Since the implementation of the video arraignment system in March of 2009, the court has conducted 3,528 video hearings which include 570 for prisoners in state prisons or other out of county facilities. This is an average of approximately 33 hearings per month over the past nine years. In 2017, the court conducted 373 video hearings, 126 of which were for prisoners in state prisons or other out of county facilities. This is an average of 31 hearings per month.
The court’s original general fund budget for 2017 was $218,223, which was less than the court’s actual expenditures in 1998 of $218, 297. The actual general fund expenditures for 2017 were $214,743, which was 1.6 percent less than the amount originally appropriated by the county commissioners. Since 2009, with the exception of 2010, when a capital murder case required large expenditures of unbudgeted expenses, the court has spent less than the amount appropriated for general fund expenses each year. The court’s annual expenditures since 2009 have been less than the expenditures in the 1998 budget.