Judges needed; county doesn’t have the cash

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A report by the state indicated there are not enough judges in Kent County.

The county currently has 16 judges, but the state report said there should be 18.

According to the report, Kent County judges are at 118% of their workload. Adding two additional judges would drop that to 105%.

Read the state’s report (pdf)

After that report was released, the county created a subcommittee to look into the possibility of adding new judges. That subcommittee just released its own report saying the county doesn’t have the money to afford two more judges.

Read the county subcommittee’s report (pdf)

In a phone interview with 24 Hour News 8, 17th Circuit Court Chief Judge Donald Johnston said family court will suffer the most.

“The resources in the family division are being squeezed pretty hard. We’re concerned that divorces, custody, visitation all of domestic relations docket is likely to become rather severely stressed by the lack of adequate resources,”  he explained.

He added, “If you have a divorce involving custody and visitation with minor children. The case is likely to be delayed rather considerably and wait time in excess of a year will not be unusual.”

Joel Freeman, a Kent County Commissioner and chair of the subcommittee that released the report, said the county doesn’t have the money to cover the costs of added judges, which he said would cost the county $725,000 per year.

“The prosecutor needed additional staff. The sheriff’s (department) would need additional deputies to staff the courthouse and transfer individuals back and fourth to the courthouse. That is where the bulk of those added expenses,” he said.

Judge Johnston disputes that claim.

“They have also assumed the additional personnel would be needed by the sheriff and the prosecutor but we have demonstrated I think conclusively that our judgeship addition would not require anything in that regard,” Johnston said.

The county report also estimated the cost of adding additional courtrooms to the county courthouse at nearly $2.8 million — a figure Johnston takes issue with.

“I clearly understand where they are coming from. Kent County has traditionally been very conservative on its use of taxpayer-funded resources and I salute them for that,” he said. “In this case, I believe they have grossly inaccurate costs estimates as to what the expansion of the court would entail. And I think they have been overly cautious in making funds available for that purpose.”

Freeman stands by the estimate.

“I don’t think it is a gross overestimate. We went off of the past numbers we had looked at in the past what the estimate was when the building was built and that kind of thing. We wanted to make sure we were conservative because we didn’t want to go into it and find out late it was going to cost more than it otherwise would have,” he said.

Freeman said the county has had to endure drastic cuts to its budget for the past four or five years and nearly every department is in need to extra help.

“What the judges are arguing is pretty much what we hear from every department — is that we are understaffed and we need more help. Unfortunately, the budget hasn’t come back yet so really there is no place to help back sell those cuts yet,” Freeman explained.

Johnston said he understands that.

“We’ll have to just work with what we have until we are able to expand the bench. We will do the best we can with the resources we have at our disposal,” he said.

Freeman said the subcommittee did meet with judges, the prosecutor’s office and the sheriff’s department before it made its decision.

“We have a very good judiciary. We have excellent judges. We have excellent staff. So we are fortunate we have kept our heads above water. Unfortunately, they are in the same boat that every other department is and that is more is expected of fewer people,” said Freeman.

“In a sense, we’re being punished for our own efficacy because what they are saying in effect you’re handling the cases now even though it’s an overload and maybe you can just keep on doing that,” said Johnston.

The next opportunity to add judges to the bench will be in the 2016 election.

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