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Eagle editorial: Reduce trial delays

  • Published Monday, March 25, 2013, at 5:57 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, March 25, 2013, at 5:57 p.m.

Too bad for Sedgwick County taxpayers that the “speedy” trial guarantee in the Sixth Amendment doesn’t prevent defense attorneys from being granted countless continuances, or ensure that public defenders will have sufficient resources and manageable caseloads.

As it is, according to an article by Deb Gruver in the Sunday Eagle, 22 inmates awaiting trial in the Sedgwick County Jail had 463 continuances among them or an average of 21 each – up from the average 17 continuances found in a 2010 report.

One inmate has been awaiting trial since September 2009. Because it costs about $68 a day to house somebody, that inmate’s jail bill alone has cost taxpayers more than $86,000. Three others have been jailed awaiting trial since 2010.

Some continuances are inevitable, as attorneys juggle their schedules and workloads and deal with witnesses. Many of them are prudent rather than merely convenient – meant to safeguard both the defendants’ rights and the ability of the eventual verdict and sentence to withstand appeal.

And Chief Judge James Fleetwood deserves credit for trimming the number of cases set for trial from 1,200 to 900, and for his determination to further reduce the trial docket over the next year.

But it’s troubling that in some cases, according to Gruver’s reporting, defendants have disagreed with their attorneys’ requests for continuances. One man accused of rape and other crimes who has been in jail since May filed a handwritten motion to fire his attorney, saying he told her “he didn’t wish to ask for any continuances” and “she has done this repeatedly against the defendant’s wishes.”

Because these delays are requested by the defense, judges don’t see them as jeopardizing the right to a speedy trial. But if defendants disagree with the continuances, they aren’t being well-served by the system.

Nor should the system be helping those defendants who favor delays in the hopes that “memories will fade and witnesses will disappear,” as deputy public defender Mark Orr put it. There is no constitutional right to avoid trial and make yourself at home in jail.

With 23.5 attorneys in the Sedgwick County public defender’s office handling about 1,100 to 1,200 felony cases, according to Orr – and one investigator where there used to be three – resources clearly are an issue. That makes this a state funding issue, too.

Common sense dictates that defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges work together to minimize defendants’ pretrial time in the jail, as state lawmakers do more to see that public defender offices are properly funded statewide.

If Sedgwick County has any hope of staving off another jail expansion, all involved must demonstrate urgency and keep the cases – and inmates – moving along.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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