LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — Prosecutors and public defenders in north-central Idaho are struggling to keep up with hundreds of felony criminal cases, and the backlog is straining budgets.
Nez Perce County has 330 felonies in its court system and is expecting that number to reach nearly 500 by the end of September, The Lewiston Tribune reported.
Felony public defender Rick Cuddihy said there are several reasons for the increase in felony cases. Courts postponed jury trials for a time during the coronavirus pandemic. Poor mental health can contribute to crime, as can a tough economy, he said.
“All that together, the constellation of factors, have created this,” Cuddihy said.
The strain likely won’t lift any time soon, because felonies generally take between six and 12 months to resolve through the court process, said Nez Perce County Prosecutor Justin Coleman.
“Before a murder trial, two prosecutors are assigned to virtually nothing but trial prep for at least two weeks prior,” Coleman said. “When you have 450 other felony cases to juggle among the rest of the office (you) can get overworked quickly.”
State guidelines also limit how many felony cases each public defender can handle at one time, in an effort to help ensure that defendants are given adequate representation in court. When Nez Perce County’s felony public defenders reach the top of their case limits, the public defenders that normally handle misdemeanors are assigned to the cases.
Attorney Paige Nolta, of Nolta Law Office, normally handles misdemeanor public defense cases. This year, she is handling 27 felony cases, compared to 8 felony cases last year.
One of the ways Nolta and the three other misdemeanor public defense attorneys are handling the surge is by taking on cases by person. For example, if someone is charged with a felony and then later is charged with a misdemeanor, that person would be represented by the same attorney for both cases, regardless of the degree of the charge.
When working on misdemeanor cases, Nolta said she tries to fix the underlying problem or trauma a person has — such as mental health issues or drug and alcohol abuse — to hopefully prevent felonies in the first place. Addressing those issues also helps prevent recidivism, the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend.
“Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes we’re not, but every case we try to approach it that way,” she said. “We really try to look at the whole person and fix the underlying issue.”