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Docket doctor

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Cohoon trying to pushher court cases through system quickly

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Editor’s note: Second of two parts.

The Kendall County Jail is full, and officials are looking for ways to relieve some of the pressure.

However, rather than there being one challenge with one solution, there are several factors that play into why the detention facility is bursting at the seams.

Sheriff Al Auxier said the jail was too small when it opened, and not only has the population in Kendall County exploded since the facility was designed, but the county’s arrest rate has doubled. So with more people going into the criminal system, it’s worth taking a look at what’s going on in the judicial process.

District Judge Kirsten Cohoon has thousands of cases on her docket. She has been in office for a year, and in that year she also has cleared thousands of cases.

But not all of those are criminal cases with people waiting in jail. Her court handles everything from civil and family cases to misdemeanors and felonies – a job that used to be split between two judges.

People who are arrested have to wait while their cases are processed. If they’re waiting for an indictment from a grand jury, that could take months while the prosecution builds a case. Grand juries also meet only once a month.

Some wait for trial in a jail cell. But for those who are granted bail — and who can afford it — the wait for a trial happens at home.

Auxier is looking into a program that would help determine if more individuals could be released on retroactive bonds that would require payment only if the accused violated the terms of release while out on bond.

But it’s Cohoon who decides if inmates are eligible to be released, and the number of available beds in the jail doesn’t play into her decision.

“I don’t even think about the jail population,” she said. “And I shouldn’t. If I’m putting someone on probation I don’t base that on how much room we have.”

Cohoon must keep track of thousands of cases in her district, and with the help of some new technology from the county she’s got a processing rate of more than 100 percent. That means for every five cases that come in, she’s disposing of at least five or six at the same time.

As of the end of September, the last date figures are available, she had disposed of more than 2,000 cases. But more are coming in every day. And it’s her job to make sure none of them fall through the cracks.

Part of her job is to go through the docket and find cases that haven’t had any activity, whether that’s some delay in the trial, it’s been settled but no paperwork was filed or the attorney who filed the case is not pushing the case. She said some judges operate by prioritizing cases that are being pushed, while the rest take a back seat.

But she doesn’t work that way.

“We still have people on the other side of those cases,” she said.

There are a few ways for a case to be disposed. For civil and family cases she can file a Dismissed for Want of Prosecution docket — a DWOP. She said a good part of her time is spent poring over the docket looking for DWOPs.

But for criminal cases, she’s trying to burn through the list by having court sessions more often. Cohoon said she has doubled the amount of felony docket days since she took over last January, and she’s made sure to have two criminal jury weeks for criminal juried trials.

Because felony cases take precedence over misdemeanors she has to make sure she carves out time for both.

“What you need is someone who can lead the court,” she said. “I’m going to hear the case and push the case. But I’m not going to be the lawyer.”

The obvious choice to add another judge seems like a good fix for the long docket, but Cohoon said before it happens the court needs to be prepared to provide the staff to support another judge. Hiring more clerks and an assistant district attorney would help clear the docket, but Cohoon said she doesn’t think it would help with the jail population much because so many inmates aren’t actually awaiting trial.

She said part of the overpopulation of the jail can be attributed to a number of factors. People arrested on out-of-town warrants, for instance, have to be held in the Kendall County Jail until they’re picked up, but they’re not under her jurisdiction for a trial. She said right now there are about 20 inmates who are not in her system.

“Many of these people sitting in our jail are waiting to go to prison,” she said. “And that takes a long time. Months.”

Other inmates are people she has confined to the county jail, and they are just serving out the rest of their sentence.

Aside from pleas and probation, Cohoon said she also can get people out with deferred adjudication. She said, for example, if an individual gets deferred adjudication of the crime for two years, the person can be released, and if they follow the terms of their release they will not be convicted of the crime.

She said many people on the inmate list aren’t even waiting for a trial. Instead they’re in jail because they’ve broken the terms of their release.

Cohoon said she keeps track of every person on her inmate list.

“I can tell you exactly where they are in the process,” she said.

She said one man who has been in jail for 555 days is set for a juried trial in February. A woman who has been in for 462 days is set for a trial this month. And a man housed for 370 days pled out, got sentenced to prison and he’s waiting in the county jail for transfer.

Right now she has two felony docket days per month plus a special setting day, where she calls people up for their crimes for a sort of status update. That is triple the number of docket days from when she started.

She also holds two full days of misdemeanors per month. That means she calls at least two to three juries per month, and she said she already went through the jury wheel once last year since she’s calling 300 to 500 people in twice per month.

“I promised everybody I’d be trying cases, and I’m trying cases,” she said.