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Full court pressure

September 10, 2005|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY

As a county's population grows, the number of crimes usually increases, too, which means more cases in court.

That's been true in Washington County, but the jump in caseloads in the circuit and district courts has far outpaced population growth.

Washington County's population rose 8.7 percent from 1990 to 2000, an average of less than 1 percent per year.

In the following years, the increase picked up to a little more than 1 percent per year. It was 2 percent last year.

But even 2 percent is far less than the rate of growth in cases in Washington County Circuit Court.

Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright III said the number of criminal, civil and juvenile cases went up 53 percent from fiscal year 1994 to fiscal year 2004, an average of about 5 percent per year.

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Washington County will get a fifth circuit judge to help with the rising caseload.

In this decade, the increase in Washington County District Court has been sharper. A state report shows that the number of cases went up 43 percent from 2001 to 2004.

Wright said population growth alone can't explain the boom.

Alcohol and drugs often are to blame, for everything from the obvious - drug charges - to crimes based on "poor choices," such as assaults, he said.

Wright said drug and alcohol problems have sparked more family cases and juvenile cases, too.

"We have a high volume of users of mind-altering substances," Wright said. "There's going to be fallout in our society."

Wright said there also is a greater tendency for people to bring their problems to court, which might account for an increase in civil cases.

The public defender's office's caseload has increased, too.

Michael Morrissette, the district public defender for Washington and Frederick counties, said his office had 3,892 cases in Washington County in fiscal year 1999.

By calendar year 2004 - the measuring period had changed by then - the number was 5,386, Morrissette said.

That's an increase of about 38 percent in five years, or around 7 percent per year.

For the public defender's office, though, economics is a bigger factor than social behavior or a local building spurt.

Because the public defender's office represents people without enough money to hire a private attorney, Morrissette said, even if the number of crimes and court cases in the county was steady, his office's caseload could go up.

Morrissette said part of the recent increase might stem from a new state law requiring his office to appear in court with any child charged as a juvenile who does not have a trial attorney right away.

He's more sure of the effect the rising caseload has had on his office.

When he joined the office in 1995, it had five attorneys. Now, there are nine.

Washington County State's Attorney Charles P. Strong Jr. said the staffing in his office has stayed about the same the last few years despite the increased load.

He said the office has tried to become more efficient by weeding out, early on, weak cases or those without merit.

Strong said the tie between the court system and growth in population or housing is the need for more police officers, which means more arrests and more court cases.

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