Out of Control

Sessions Court sounds more like a circus than the bar of justice

Frank Talk

by Frank Cagle

A couple of years ago U.S. District Court Judge James Jarvis jacked up the Sessions Court judges of Knox County by suggesting they work harder, stop granting continuances and help empty out the overcrowded jails.

He had an interest in the topic because he was trying to get Knox County to solve its jail-overcrowding problem without making them build more jails and without his having to hold public officials in contempt. I had occasion to congratulate the judge recently, before his untimely death, for saying out loud what needed to be said (he was good at that). He just growled and shook his head in disgust.

If you read the consultant study assessing Knox County's jail overcrowding, disgust is an appropriate response.

Here are a few gems from the report:

â"â“âWe observed there were approximately 25 inmates in custody, in the presence of two deputies seated at the rear of the courtroom, and immediately adjacent to the publicâ Cases were as often called by defense counsel and the (prosecutor) as the (judge).

â"â“The (judge) could not be heard over the voices of attorneys, court staff, and the audience. Persons entered and exited the courtroom without limitation, contributing to the necessity of more conversation among the audience and with lawyers roaming around the courtroom.â”

â"â“âThe habitual reliance on continuances by attorneys and the widespread expectation that cases will â‘not go to trial' has seriously undermined the ability of the judges in General Sessions courts to perform their broad general functions of guarantor of due process and protector of the public order.â”

(Let me interject that the thrust of the report is the routine granting of continuances, which means there is no expectation of the trial proceeding so witnesses [like cops] don't bother to show up and the attorneys are not prepared for trial. I'm told it usually takes two or three scheduled court dates before a case gets tried. Witnesses sometimes quit in disgust and the defense bar then asks for the charge to be dismissed.)

â"â“Lapse between arrest and dispositionâ was at least three times the recognized American Bar Association Standardsâ only 32 percent were disposed of in 30 days from arrest or less and the largest percentage of charges (35 percent) was disposed of between 91 days and one year after arrest.â”

(Let me insert here that the longer it takes to dispose of these cases, the longer they sit in jail, taking up space, forcing the construction of more jail pods. When the case is disposed of, guilty people can go to state prison, innocent people can go home or guilty people might be sentenced to probation. In each of these outcomes a bed is freed up in the county jail. Taking a year to dispose of a case instead of 30 days builds up a tremendous jail population.)

â"The report observes that the judges work through lunch and go home at 2 p.m. The study recommends that there be a morning and an afternoon docket. At present witnesses and crime victims show up at 9 a.m. as required. Then they sit while the judges go through the jail docket. That's the people already in custody, arrayed in orange jumpsuits in the back of the court. They aren't going anywhere except back to jail. But honest citizens sit around and wait for the prisoner pleadings to be heard. The consultants suggest citizens be dealt with in a morning session and that the jail docket be dealt with in an afternoon session. Or vice versa.

â"Instead of the cases being assigned to the same public defender and the same prosecutor and having all discovery done prior to the initial appearance, what often happens is the defense attorney or the prosecutor come in with no familiarity with the case and thus the case cannot be disposed of at the first court date. It requires another court appearance.

There is much more in that vein, but what is clear is that the judges are afraid of the lawyers and they don't have the courage to get control of their courts. They don't require people to show up prepared and settle cases. Dockets are a joke. You would think people elected by the people (to eight-year terms) would be responsive enough to tell prosecutors and defense attorneys that until further notice court will be in session 12 hours a day, six days a week until the damn jail population is back down to a manageable level.

Instead, they closed court for a week because the Fourth of July was on a Wednesday.

But it isn't really their problem. You are the ones who will have to pay for more jails. Legislators and the County Commission should do whatever it takes to establish a court administrator who sets firm dockets, keeps up with judges' hours and records their efficiency levels in a report to the county.

They have forfeited their right to be independent.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville magazine. You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .

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