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Court caseloads up 24.2 percent last year

Felony case filings in Jackson County spiked 24.2 percent in 2016 over the previous year, according to the county's presiding judge.

At the annual State of the Court Address Wednesday, Circuit Court Judge Tim Gerking pointed to a "very limited number" of jail beds as one of the reasons for the increase of 751 felony cases above the previous year's 3,107 filings. Misdemeanors also rose by 212, a 7.3 percent jump from last year. 

Because of jail overcrowding, Gerking said, the court will be implementing mandatory settlement processes for all pending Measure 11 cases next month.

Circuit Court Judge Patricia Crain said a "huge" drug problem is another factor in the rise of cases, with opiate addiction rivaling methamphetamine.

Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia said it's not uncommon to see more than 100 arraignments scheduled in a day, which would take a prohibitive amount of time to process should the bulk of defendants actually appear at their hearings. One defendant on Mejia's docket Wednesday morning had 11 separate cases.

"He did not show up for his court date," Mejia said. "We really have no hammer to make people show up."

Mejia said that reopening the jail's basement level, which has 62 beds, may have a negligible impact on statistics, on average lengthening an inmate's stay by just 1.25 days. He cited previous sheriffs' statements that a jail twice the size of the current one would still be overcrowded. Though he advocated for a larger jail, Mejia said "this is really an issue for the voters." 

In the short term, Mejia said, the basement beds could ease caseloads, possibly giving repeat offenders enough time to meet with defense lawyers and more time to consider plea offers.

"That will certainly be a help," Mejia said.

Defense lawyer Peter Carini asked the panel of Circuit Court judges whether the crime increase stems from inmates being released early, giving them the chance to commit new crimes.

"It just seems to me it's the same 100 people," Carini said.

Criminal court judges were not the only ones seeing a spike in cases, according to Gerking. Dependency cases increased by more than 100 in juvenile court, and family court has seen a "dramatic increase" in domestic relations trials.

Civil and Family Court Judge Ron Grensky said that virtually no civil cases go to trial anymore, but his family law trial caseload more than makes up the difference. Last month, Grensky said, he had four cases seeking termination of parental rights go to trial. Compounding the issue, the scheduling makes it "hard to have settlement conferences."

Juvenile and Treatment Court Judge Lisa Greif said Jackson County rivals Lane County in the number of child welfare cases in which parents seek to take their custody revocation to trial, despite often having very weak cases.

"They're some of the most atrocious, depressing, sad things you could ever watch," Greif said.

— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.