FAYETTEVILLE -- How to measure and improve the performance of the criminal justice system became a point of contention Thursday for members of Washington County's Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.
The panel held its monthly meeting at the County Courthouse and had a range of topics to discuss including a mental health court, the need for peer support specialists for alternative courts and even the prospect of a regional jail.
But how to measure the performance of the circuit courts quickly became the main topic of discussion.
Drew Smith, the committee's director, began discussing her efforts to track continuances in court cases and the reasons continuances are granted.
Blake Chancellor and other members of the committee said the raw numbers don't reflect all of the questions and issues.
"What are the questions we're trying to ask?" Chancellor said. "What are you trying to get out of it? You can make numbers say anything you want. A lot of times the type of cases causes differences in the numbers of continuances."
Others agreed that just the numbers don't show the reality of the situation.
Leana Houston, chief deputy public defender, pointed to the number of capital murder cases, saying she's the only public defender in the county who is certified to try such cases. She also said the American Bar Association says the average annual workload for a public defender should be 150 cases while the workload of the attorneys in the Washington County Public Defender's Office routinely exceeds 150 a month.
Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett and Circuit Judge Mark Lindsay agreed with Houston about the workload for public defenders, adding the load on prosecutors and judges also impacts the efficiency of the courts system without being easily quantifiable.
Durrett said he's personally handling 17 homicide cases right now, and other attorneys in his office are handling another five.
Lindsay said he has been telling local and state officials for years a constantly growing caseload calls for more attorneys and more judges if the system is to function properly.
"Both our prosecutors and public defenders are overworked and underpaid," Lindsay said. "We need more prosecuting attorneys and public defenders. We can also let another judge start handling criminal cases."
County Judge Patrick Deakins said he understood the difficulty of measuring the workings of the criminal justice system but argued it's essential. He urged the committee members to continue the discussion and to find some agreement on what and how to provide data on the operation of the courts that will support any proposed changes or expansion of the system.
"We have to have something we can measure," Deakins said.
Criminal Justice committee
Washington County formed its Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee after a 2019 study recommended such a group be formed to study alternatives to building more jail space. The committee includes law enforcement representatives, judges, prosecutors, public defenders, mental health professionals and some community representatives.
The group has been considering programs such as a mental health court, modeled after the states drug court program, and expanded pretrial services meant to keep people out of jail while awaiting trial. The pretrial services would help people meet their obligations to appear in court and assist them in finding transportation, housing, food and employment and other services they may need.
Source: Washington County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee