After a two-year period when the Rice County Courts were closed far more often than they were active, RiceCounty Attorney John Fossum said his office has substantially reduced the backlog that accrued during that time.
With that said, he would also like the court system to be a little more reasonable in their demands to reduce the number further.
During the pandemic, the criminal case backlog in Rice County ballooned to well over 300 cases. Without the threat of going to trial, many defendants were not interested in negotiating a plea bargain, so the situation stagnated until trials resumed. At that point, the courts brought in retired Rice County judge John Cajacob to work part-time and handle initial appearance hearings and smaller cases. With three full time judges, one part time judge, and a newly constructed Covid safe courtroom, the county now has the ability to try two cases at the same time. Accordingly, the backlog has been greatly diminished.
Still, Fossum believes the court system is not being completely reasonable in the way they are assessing that backlog.
“A month ago, the backlog was 132 cases, which is where they wanted us to be in November,” he said. “This week the number is 180, which tells me they are adding cases.”
He said counting cases into the backlog that have just recently been charged is not right. It is Fossum’s belief that the backlog should be assessed as the cases that were charged during the pandemic and should not include newer cases.
“Right now, the backlog is the caseload,” he said. “Rice county has always had a caseload, and it will always have a caseload. I’ve never seen a county attorney’s office that is completely caught up.”
He said there are questions being posed to him by the courts about what his plans are for next summer, when the funding for Judge Cajacob is set to expire. He said, if the courts want to see more expedient action in Rice County, then they should be willing to allocate more resources to the county.
“40 years ago in Rice County, we had we had three District Court judges and a population of under 40,000. Today we have a population of 67,000 and we have three District Court judges. And so, if there’s a capacity issue here, then perhaps the court system needs to find a way to address it.”
Fossum also said neither the county nor his office will face any penalties for not decreasing the number sooner.
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