In this year’s annual Highland County Common Pleas Court report, Judge Rocky Coss highlighted that criminal case filings increased by more than 15 percent from 2017 to 2018, and while there were more jury trials in 2018 than 2017, they continue to be relatively few and far between.
Coss on Wednesday told The Times-Gazette that he does not have a particular reason why criminal cases spiked, but he said drug use continues to be the main engine of crime in the county.
“Obviously, it goes without saying that drug activity and drug addiction is one of the biggest things that drives the criminal caseload,” he said.
Coss said the increase in criminal cases was offset by a 2-percent decline in domestic relations cases, leading the total caseload for 2018 in the General Division of the court to increase by only 4 percent from 2017.
According to last year’s report, the judge presided over five jury trials in 2017, and the most recent report says the judge presided over nine jury trials in 2018 — certainly an increase, Coss said, but compared to when his legal career began in the 1970s, there are “much fewer” now.
Currently, only about 2 or 3 percent of criminal cases are heard by juries, according to the judge.
“It’s an interesting phenomena,” he said.
The judge said the court has been financially “very frugal” over the last 10 years, and it is still operating under the same budget as it had in 1998. The judge added that his office was able to cut $10,000 from its budget last year.
“We’ve always been very careful, my staff and I, to manage the public’s money,” he said.
The following is the judge’s report in its entirety, lightly edited to align with style guidelines:
This is the 11th annual report prepared for the purpose of informing the public of the activities of the court during the past year and comparing the case filings for the court for the past several years:
Annual case filings
The 2018 caseload of the General Division of the court increased by 4 percent compared to 2017, while the Domestic Relations Division caseload decreased by 2 percent from 2017. There were 501 new and reopened cases in the General Division in 2017 compared to 482 in 2017. The total of new and reopened cases in Domestic Relations in 2018 was 338 compared to 345 cases in 2017. The total number of cases filed or reopened in both divisions for 2018 was 839 compared to 827 in 2017, which represents an overall increase of 1.5 percent over 2017’s case totals.
Case filings in the court had 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 was more than the statewide trends, as noted in the 2016 Ohio Supreme Court statewide Statistical Report Summary. However, the caseload for this court has remained fairly level during the past three years being 837 in 2016, 827 in 2017 and 839 in 2018 for a three-year average of 834 cases annually.
As of Dec. 31, 2018, there were 173 total cases pending in the General Division, compared to 162 pending as of Dec. 31, 2017. In the Domestic Relations Division, there were 73 cases pending at the end of 2018 compared to 91 at the end of 2017.
Criminal cases filings in 2018 increased 16.5 percent over the number filed in 2017, which was the first increase in the number of criminal case filings since 2015. There were 226 new and reopened criminal cases in the General Division in 2018 compared to 194 in 2017. 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 filed annually increased approximately 15 percent each year until the first decrease in 2016 followed by 2017. The average number of criminal cases filed over the past 10 years is 220.
According to the 2017 Ohio Supreme Court’s statistical report summary, criminal court cases had been declining steadily over the 10 years prior to 2016, but increased that year by 5 percent statewide from 2015. In 2017, there was a 1-percent increase in criminal case filings statewide from 2016. The 2018 report is not yet available.
These statistics are based on the requirements for filing case management reports with the Ohio Supreme Court. A new case represents arraignment on an indictment or a case that is reopened which had been closed prior to adjudication such as a defendant being unavailable. This does not include indictments that were filed in 2018 with the clerk, but not served on the defendant. Also, it does not include cases bound over to the grand jury in which indictments were not returned. Therefore, there is a variance between the clerk of courts’ case numbers and this report.
It should be noted that the statistics regarding criminal cases do not include any post-conviction 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.
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.
JRIG grant program for treatment
The Smart Ohio treatment grant program ended 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 the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in 2017 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 annually to prison from this court from 2012-2017 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. As of the date of this report, the court is on target to meet that goal.
There were 92 new foreclosure cases and three reopened cases in 2018 for a total of 95 This compares to 92 new cases and four reopened cases for a total of 96 in 2017. This was the ninth consecutive year in which foreclosure filings deceased. 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 2017 Statistical Report Summary, foreclosures declined statewide from 2009 to 2017 by 59 percent. The decline in this court over that same period was 69 percent.
Other civil cases
There were 180 other types of new and reopened civil cases filed in 2018 compared to 192 filed in 2017. In 2008, there were 295 cases filed in this category, which represents a reduction of 39 percent in case filings in 2018, which is in line with the statewide trend during that period.
Judge Coss presided over jury trials in nine criminal cases in 2018. According to recent studies, 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 86 criminal jury trials in the past 10 years, representing approximately 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 203 new cases and 135 reopened cases in 2018 for a total of 338 cases, while there were 224 new and 121 reopened cases filed in 2017 for a total of 345. The average annual filings over the past three years is 340. Reopened cases are usually due to motions for modification of child custody/parental rights, modification of child support, motions to enforce property issues in a prior decree or motions to cite for contempt of orders in prior decrees.
In 2008, there were 579 new and reopened cases filed in the Domestic Relations Division. The total of the 2018 domestic relations case filings is approximately 42 percent less than in 2008.
Case completion times
Criminal cases: Since a significant number of 2018 criminal cases remain open, the most recent case completion data for criminal cases is for 2017. The average number of days to complete a criminal case from the date of indictment to the date of sentencing in 2017 was 80. In 2016, the average completion time was 76 days. The Supreme Court guideline for criminal cases is six months. For the year 2007, the average number of days from arraignment to completion was 202 days.
Civil cases: The data for 2017 cases is not final as there are several civil cases with two-year time guidelines that were still pending at the end of 2018. The tentative average number of days to complete all civil cases filed in 2016 was 144.5 days compared to 2015, which was 140.63.
Domestic relations cases: The average time of completion for divorce cases filed in 2017 was 159 days compared to 2016, which was 170. The dissolution of marriage average completion was 49 days, the same as the average in 2016. Change of custody cases were 128 compared to the 2016 average of 138 days. The case completion average for domestic violence cases was 17, compared to 15 days in 2016. The data for 2018 is not yet final as there are numerous cases with one-year or 18-month time guidelines that 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 3,784 video hearings, which includes 603 for prisoners in state prisons or other out-of-county facilities. This is an average of approximately 32 hearings per month over the past 10 years. In 2018, the court conducted 285 video hearings, of which 42 were for prisoners in state prisons or other out-of-county facilities.
Drug court under consideration
Judge Coss has been considering establishing a drug court for low-level, non-violent, non-sex offender felony cases for some time. The first formal planning meeting with representatives from the Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition and probation department representatives was held in December. Planning is continuing, including discussions with judges who operate drug courts in other counties and with the Specialized Dockets Section of the Ohio Supreme Court. The goal is to obtain a preliminary certification to allow the court to begin a drug court docket by the end of 2019.
The court continues to utilize local outpatient substance abuse treatment providers and in-patient programs, including the Lynn Goff House for women in Greenfield and the Massie House in Jackson County. It also continues to utilize the STAR community-based corrections facility as well as residential treatment facilities in other counties.
The court’s original general fund budget for 2018 was $223,472, which was less than the court’s actual expenditures in 1998 of $218, 297. The actual general fund expenditures for 2018 were $212,355, which was 5 percent under budget. Since 2009, except for 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 general fund budget.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570.