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The original item was published from 12/22/2021 1:05:00 PM to 1/22/2022 12:00:01 AM.

News Flash

Court Administration

Posted on: December 21, 2021

[ARCHIVED] Courts Press Release

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The Rice County Attorney’s Office will hire two new attorneys and a legal assistant to help reduce the considerable backlog of cases that has developed since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. 

The additional staff will ensure the County Attorney’s Office can keep pace with the Rice County court administrator’s plan to drawdown the backlog. County prosecutors, said County Attorney John Fossum, typically have a caseload of 100 to 150 cases. Currently, it’s about 300.

“That’s too much,” he said. “We need to clear cases, but we need to spread out the workload.”

The new staff will serve on a long-term temporary basis, though the need for the additional positions is anticipated to last through June 2023. Funding to pay for the additional staff will come from federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars allotted to the county.

The backlog of felony and gross misdemeanor cases sat at 369 in September 2021. It was at 283 Friday.

The county’s three judges will also get some assistance. Former Faribault attorney and Rice County judge, John Cajacob, who retired from the bench in February 2020, will soon preside over first appearances, and bail and probation violation hearings. None of those will require him to write opinions, which can be time consuming.

Cajacob is expected to be back in court three days a week. A temporary court reporter will also be hired to assist in Cajacob’s courtroom. Both will be on the state of Minnesota’s payroll.

The Sheriff’s Office is also adjusting its staffing to meet the courts’ needs. Three part-time deputies will move to full-time courthouse security staff until the backlog is cleared. It’s anticipated that the increase in wages will also be covered by federal ARPA funding.

The additional personnel are expected to help reduce the major criminal case backlog by 20% each quarter. In the last 12 weeks, the backlog has been cut by 64 cases, according to Rice County Court Administration figures. Those numbers reflect cases in which the defendant was exonerated or in which sentencing was pronounced. Cases in which the defendant is awaiting sentencing are not included in that number.

The backlog developed when the Minnesota Judicial System closed following the start of the pandemic. Hearings via Zoom didn’t start until June 2020, and even then there were no jury trials in the county.

Courtrooms in the historic 1932 courthouse are too small to allow for social distancing when a jury is present, and it took time to convert vacant space in the newly renovated Government Services Building to an additional courtroom. The county used federal CARES Act funds to purchase new technology, and had a judge’s bench and court reporter, clerk and witness stands constructed, all which move to a fourth Rice County courtroom after the pandemic.

The lack of jury trials contributed to the backlog in less obvious ways as well. According to Fossum, his office had difficulty getting defendants to accept worthy plea deals. Without the threat of prison or a trial hanging over their heads, many defendants were content to bide their time.

While it won’t be easy to eliminate the backlog by the end of June 2023, Fossum believes it can be done.

 

“Being able to bring in extra lawyers will be helpful,” he said.

 

Contact: Suzy Rook, Rice County Communications Specialist, at 507-384-6509 or [email protected]

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