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Court priorities

The defeat of the state tax surcharge is likely to cause Disorder in the courts

BY SARAH LEMON

Police would lose the keys to solving many crimes.

Accused criminals could be released from jail before their trials.

And many Oregonians' legal disputes would languish in court if voters next month do not endorse an income tax surcharge to balance the state budget.

Approving Ballot Measure 30 would result in the average taxpayer owing an additional &

36;111 per year for up to three years.

— Preparing to pare millions from their budgets if Measure 30 is defeated, the state's criminal justice system is predicting lengthy delays in court and layoffs at Oregon State Police crime labs. State officials say they'll also run out of funding for court-appointed attorneys.

Identity theft victim Jammie Unger has waited for numerous checks forged under her name over the past month to surface. After a daytime stroll with her children in Bear Creek Park before Christmas, Unger returned to her minivan to find the passenger window broken and her purse missing. The purse contained checkbooks, bank cards, Social Security numbers and birth dates ' everything the thieves would need to tap into Unger's finances.

It's violating, she said.

Even with this week's arrest of Roxanna Sherrill Hinton ' suspected of using Unger's driver's license to blanket Medford in bad checks ' the case could take months for police to piece together. And under a reduced court budget, the case could languish for much longer before Unger can shake the specter of a stranger using her identity.

I think the closure is really important, so you can feel like it's finished, she said.

But like Unger, victims of thousands of property crimes committed across the state will likely have to wait longer to get closure. Non-violent felonies, which include burglaries, major thefts, forgeries, and drug cases, will fall just outside the court's immediate priorities under a reduced budget, officials said. The state's court system faces a &

36;13 million reduction if Measure 30 fails.

Jackson County Circuit Court cases already are among the most delayed in the state because more cases are handled by fewer judges. However, many non-criminal cases including civil suits, divorces involving property disputes and small claims will be backed up even further, officials said, leaving some wondering if the courts will ever be able to catch up.

To me it's such a violation of what the Constitution is supposed to provide, said Jim Adams, Circuit Court administrator for Jackson County.

Many states have made their judiciary immune to budget reductions, Adams said. But Oregon's judicial branch, which comprises about 2 percent of the state's &

36;11.5 billion budget, has been subject to across-the-board cuts along with every other state agency during the recent funding crisis.

Some of the proposed cuts violate the state and federal constitutions, officials said. Due to take a &

36;10 million hit if the ballot measure fails is the state commission that appoints attorneys for accused criminals who cannot pay for their own legal counsel. The state would run out of money for those attorneys sometime between March and May 2005, likely resulting in the release of many accused criminals from jail before their trials.

Our argument would be even in murder, they would have to be released, said Bert Putney, who manages the Southern Oregon Public Defender offices in Jackson and Josephine counties. Local judges agree, he said.

Echoing a general countywide increase in crime, the public defenders' caseloads are growing by about 17 percent a year, Putney said. Tougher penalties, such as those enacted under Measure 11, increase the likelihood that defendants request court-appointed attorneys, he said. Jackson County is averaging about 10 such crimes per month, Putney said.

Even if local police make arrests, prosecuting the cases could hit a snag without the help of crime labs run by Oregon State Police. The crime labs statewide would lay off more than half their employees to reduce their budget by nearly &

36;4 million, OSP officials said.

Local police agencies recently have started processing limited amounts of their own evidence. However, the majority of crime-scene evidence across the state is handled by OSP.

My theory is they (the public) will find out what our services are worth to them after it's not available, said Wayne Jeffers, director of the OSP crime lab in Central Point.

State court officials say the top six case types listed below will see little effect from potential budget cuts from Measure 30. The remainder could experience substantial or indefinite delays.

1. Violent felonies (includes homicide, assault, robbery, sex abuse).

2. Juvenile permanency (termination of parental rights, dependency).

3. Violent misdemeanors (such as assaults, driving under the influence).

4. Family and elder abuse protective orders, juvenile restraining orders, stalking orders.

5. Adoptions and divorces involving children.

6. Civil commitment.

7. Non-violent felonies (includes burglaries, major thefts, drug cases).

8. Landlord tenant disputes.

9. Guardianships and conservatorships.

10. Non-violent misdemeanors (includes minor thefts and vandalism).

11. Violations (traffic and non-traffic).

12. Civil cases.

13. Estate disputes.

14. Divorces involving property disputes.

15. Small claims.

Jammie Unger?s car was burglarized in Bear Creek Park just before Christmas. The thief got hold of her identity and began writing bad checks all over town. Budget cuts would mean cases like hers would get a low priority in court. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell