Editor’s Note — This is the 12th annual report prepared by Judge Rocky A. Coss for the purpose of informing the public of the activities of the Highland County Common Pleas Court during the past year as well as comparing the case filings for the court for the past several years.
ANNUAL CASE FILINGS
The annual overall caseload of the court remained relatively stable in 2019 compared to the past three years. The total number of cases filed or reopened in both divisions for 2019 was 826 compared to 839 in 2018, which represents a slight decrease of 2.0 percent from 2018’s case totals. The 2019 caseload of the General Division of the Court increased by 4 percent compared to 2018 while the Domestic Relations caseload decreased by 10 percent from 2018. There were 521 new and reopened cases filed in the General Division in 2019 compared to 501 in 2018. The total of new and reopened cases filed in the Domestic Relations Division in 2019 was 305 compared to 338 cases in 2018. The caseload for the court has remained fairly level over the last four years. There were 837 new and reopened cases in 2016, 827 in 2017 and 839 in 2018 for a four-year average of 832 cases annually.
As of Dec. 31, 2019, there were 199 total cases pending in the General Division, compared to 174 pending as of Dec. 31, 2018. In the Domestic Relations Division, there were 70 cases pending at the end of 2019 compared to 73 at the end of 2018.
There was a slight decrease in the number of criminal cases filed in 2019. There were 218 new and reopened criminal cases in the General Division in 2019 compared to 226 filed in 2018. From 2012 through 2015 the number of criminal cases filed had annually increased approximately 15 percent until 2016 when the first decrease in annual filings occurred. This was repeated in 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. However, the average number of criminal cases filed over the past 10 years is 220.
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 and a reopened case is one which had been closed prior to adjudication such as a defendant being unavailable after arraignment. The total number of cases does not include indictments that were filed in 2019 with the clerk but not served on the defendant. Also, it does not include cases bound over to a 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, drug court 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.
Foreclosure filings were at a record low since 2009. There were 76 new foreclosure cases and two reopened cases in 2019 for a total of 78. There were 92 new cases and three reopened cases for a total of 95 in 2018. This was the 10th 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.
OTHER CIVIL CASES
Other civil cases increased by 25 percent compared to 2018. There were 225 new and reopened civil cases filed in 2019 compared to 180 filed in 2018.
Coss presided over jury trials in seven criminal cases in 2018 compared to nine 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 10 years in the Highland County Common Pleas Court which is well below the national average. There have been approximately 95 criminal jury trials in the past 11 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 199 new cases and 106 reopened cases filed in 2019 for a total of 305. There were 203 new and 135 reopened cases filed in 2018 for a total of 338. The average annual filings over the past four years is 331. 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.
CASE COMPLETION TIMES
CRIMINAL CASES — Since a significant number of 2019 criminal cases remain open, the most recent case completion data for criminal cases is for 2018. The average number of days to complete a criminal case from the date of indictment to the date of sentencing in 2018 was 86 compared to 83 in 2017. The Supreme Court guidelines for criminal cases is six months.
CIVIL CASES — The data for 2018 cases is not final as there are several types of civil cases with two-year time guidelines that were still pending at the end of 2019. The average number of days to complete all civil cases filed in 2017 was 137 days compared to 2016 which was 144.5.
DOMESTIC RELATIONS CASES — The data for 2018 is not yet final as numerous cases with one year or 18-month time guidelines were still pending at the end of the year. The average time of completion for divorce cases filed in 2018 was 146 days compared to 2017 which was 159. The dissolution of marriage average completion was 49 days, the same as the average in both 2016 and 2017. Change of custody cases was 104 days compared to the 2017 average of 128 days. The case completion average for domestic violence cases was 14 days compared to 15 days in 2017.
VIDEO ARRAIGNMENTS AND HEARINGS
In 2019, the court conducted 278 video hearings of which 24 were for prisoners in state prisons or other out of county facilities. Since the implementation of the video arraignment system in March of 2009, the court has conducted 4,141 video hearings which include 628 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.
ESTABLISHMENT OF DRUG COURT
Last year saw the establishment of the first drug court in Highland County in the common pleas court. The application for certification was filed in March and interim certification was approved in April. The first offenders were accepted into the drug court docket in July and the first court session was held in August. The drug court docket is currently held on the first and third Friday afternoons of each month.
There are currently 18 offenders who are participating in the drug court, which represents almost one-half of the design capacity for the program. Due to the growing number of offenders who participate in the drug court docket, the court is going to start conducting drug court docket proceedings on both the mornings and afternoons of the first and third Fridays of each month so that the sessions will be shorter and allow more time for review of individual participants’ cases.
The drug court docket consists of three phases and requires a minimum period of 18 months to graduate. Participants are drug tested frequently and randomly with those in the first phase being tested at least two to four times per week. Participants are assigned a window of time in which they are required to call in daily including weekends to learn whether they are to be tested that day. If they are, they have a window of time to report to be tested. They also participate in intensive outpatient treatment and receive other programing and rehabilitative services through the probation department and other drug court treatment team member agencies.
The court continues to utilize local out-patient substance abuse treatment providers and in-patient programs including the Lynn Goff House for women in Greenfield and the Massie House for men in Jackson Township, the STAR community-based corrections facility in Franklin Furnace and residential treatment facilities in other counties. To date, most of the drug court participants have begun residential treatment and are then placed in transitional housing and re-entry programs. The drug court advisory committee and treatment team continue to work with local groups to develop additional sober living houses in Highland County for participants as they move from Phase I to Phase II of the drug court docket program.
NEW TREATMENT AND PROBATION GRANTS
The common pleas court judge is the appointing authority for the County Probation Department. That department has been very successful in obtaining a number of grants for the court to provide probation supervision and treatment of offenders who are placed on community control for felony offenders. Establishment of the drug court docket made the court and county eligible for several grants to provide probation and treatment services to offenders with substance abuse and mental health issues.
In 2019, three new grants were received for these purposes. In July, a grant of $118,580 was received from the State Opiate Response program. In November, a grant of $40,000 was approved from the Addiction Treatment Program and in December a grant from the Special Docket Subsidy Project of $150,000 was approved. The grant funds are used for providing additional staff in the probation department including case managers and direct services to the offenders including drug court participants.
JRIG GRANT PROGRAM FOR TREATMENT RENEWED
In June of 2019, the Highland County Probation Department’s Justice Reinvestment Incentive Grant from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections originally received in 2017 was renewed for two years beginning July 1, 2019 in the amount of $242,928. This grant is designed to help reduce the number of offenders who are sentenced to prison terms for fourth- and fifth-degree felonies but can also be used for misdemeanor offenders in other courts in the county. Funds are being used for treatment and other rehabilitation services for offenders.
The court’s original general fund budget for 2019 was $222,845. The actual general fund expenditures for 2019 were $210, 989, which was 5 percent under budget. In each year 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. The court’s annual expenditures since 2009 have been less than the expenditures in the 1998 general fund budget which were $218,297.