Lack of judges means longer waits in jail

Judge John C. Rowley has to plan his schedule four months ahead of time in 15-minute increments because his caseload tops 300.
Judge John C. Rowley has to plan his schedule four months ahead of time in 15-minute increments because his caseload tops 300.
Photo by Jamie Swinnerton
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Don’t do the crime if you can’t pay the time. A long time. If you end up in the Tompkins County jail, you might just get stuck for weeks or even months waiting for a hearing because of a shortage of judges. Both of the local county judges who handle county cases are carrying a caseload of over 300, and that’s just in family court.


So, what does it mean to have such a heavy caseload? “It just really has made our jobs so busy that it takes a toll on us, it takes a toll on our staff, it takes a toll on the courthouse,” said Tompkins County Court Judge John C. Rowley. “We are essentially scheduled four months in advance by the 15-minute time slot.”


Rowley has 23 felony cases awaiting resolution, and 28 awaiting sentencing. His fellow county judge, Joseph R. Cassidy, has about the same load. To help them out, City of Ithaca judges, on top of their own city court duties, sometimes act as county judges to hear county cases. At times the county judges must act as state supreme court judges as well.


The problem has not gone unnoticed and the county legislature is hoping to do something about it. But, it’s going to take some help from the state government.


At the Dec. 4, 2018 meeting of the county legislature, a resolution was passed in support of the establishment of a third county court judge. Paying for the county judges is a state expense. The next step is for the legislature to get Governor Andrew Cuomo to put the money needed into his recommended 2020 budget, expected to be released soon.


With the help of the area’s state representatives including Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton and State Senator Tom O’Mara, the legislature is hoping to be able to get the request passed at all levels of state government. If successful, once the county has the funds necessary to pay a third county judge and court clerks, an election would be held to fill the position. Finding and creating a space for the third county judge to work would be the only local funds needed.


County legislator Rich John said that the legislature’s efforts came close last year and they were able to get a bill through the Senate but it didn’t go to the Assembly, and the request was not in the governor’s budget. So, this year legislators started earlier.


“It’s not binding on the Senate or the Assembly, but it’s a starting point and it’s hard to get it into the Senate or the Assembly if it isn’t in the governor’s budget,” John said of the process. The request must pass all three hurdles to become a reality.


A growing problem
The problem of large caseloads has grown with the county’s population. While other upstate counties have seen populations decrease, Tompkins’ population has grown by 50 percent over the past 50 years, from around 70,000 in 1966 to an estimated 104,871, according to the 2016 census. That means we have the most residents per judge than any other County in the Sixth Judicial District — 52,436 people, or about 1.5 times the District average.


The initial recommendation for a third county judge came from two different sources with similar goals. A coalition of local town and city judges, as well as the district attorney, got together several years ago to figure out if there was a way that cases could be handled more quickly and efficiently. One of the recommendations from that coalition was a third county judge. Soon after, the county commissioned a study of the Tompkins County Jail to find ways to lower the jail population. The jail houses more prisoners than its capacity and lost a temporary waiver to do so from the state. One of the recommendations from that study also recommended a third county court judge to help expedite the sentencing and trial process.


“There’s been a shift over the last 20 years towards more specialization within the courts so that’s why we have Family Treatment Court, Felony Drug Court, Sex Offender Compliance Court, Integrated Domestic Violence Court, those are all specialty courts because they have to meet a certain criteria to be in a case,” said Rowley about how the courts are different today than they were when the county could more easily operate with two judges.


“Rather than being satisfied with the status quo, we’ve made the decision to go ahead and commit to these improved programs,” he said. “They’re clearly effective, evidence-based programming. But they’re more time-consuming.”


A third county judge would have to be able to take on cases from several of these courts to help share the load. While Rowley believes in the specialty courts, it’s clear that they have made more work for the court.


Court guidelines aim to have cases resolved within six months. Rowley said that while both he and Judge Cassidy generally stay within those guidelines there are cases that are given lower priority that can take longer than six months.


“It’s not a very satisfactory feeling to just put things completely to the side because I can’t give that my attention until I have a break in the action,” Rowley said.


But while adding a third judge will help clear cases faster, it will create more work elsewhere. The Tompkins County District Attorney’s Office would have to keep up a faster pace that a third judge would create.


“It would definitely increase our workload,” said Tompkins County District Attorney Matt Van Houten. “So, someone who, for example, was sitting in jail waiting for their trial will wait longer with the two judges then they would with three judges.”


Van Houten said he’s very aware of who is sitting in jail waiting for trial, it’s something he monitors each week.


“There are times when someone is sitting in jail for six to nine months waiting for a trial date,” he said.


Adding a third judge would mean less time waiting for trial, which is good for defendants and the community, including victims who want closure and to get their testimony told in court.


Chair of the County Legislature, Martha Robertson, will be in Albany this month and plans on discussing the need for a third judge in Tompkins County with the governor’s office.

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