Following the latest round of budget cuts, public assistance windows in the Jackson County Justice Building will be closed at 4 p.m. A series of cuts has led to the elimination of clerks, bailiffs, pretrial release staff and other court employees. - Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch

Trials of their own

Another round of budget cuts has hit the Jackson County Circuit Court, further reducing court staff, programs and services.

"It's a statewide trend. We had to cut five positions in the latest round," said Bob Kleker, the county's interim trial court administrator.

Those cuts are piled on previous cuts, resulting in lost support for everything from determining bail amounts to handling traffic fines.

The state's 2011-13 budget for courts was $1.5 million short of what was needed to maintain services at the existing level. Staff at the county's Circuit Court will be cut to 67 employees — down from the 80 who were working in the Justice Building in September, Kleker said.

Gone in the latest rounds of cuts are the court's last two bailiffs. Also gone is the release assistance department, and a court clerk position.

There no longer will be a phone receptionist directing callers to different departments.

The Circuit Court's public civil service windows and phone systems will be closed at 4 p.m., which is in addition to the noon hour closing that was implemented on Sept. 1.

Access in and out of the Justice Building will remain open during the noon hour.

"This latest round was painful — really painful coupled with October's cuts," Kleker said.

Kleker praised his staff for their "great spirit of cooperation." He said every effort was made to minimize adverse impacts on the public, protect core court services and provide a sustainable workload for staff, but noted the cuts will create a certain level of hardship for many.

Kleker said the biggest issue for residents who come to court intending to pay fines and fees for traffic citations or licenses, or to file paperwork, will be the 4 p.m. closure of the public windows in the afternoon.

"We wish, honestly, we didn't have to take these steps," he said, adding there will be a drop box for court filings available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Kleker said, in addition to the staff reductions, administrative positions in Jackson County Circuit Court have been reduced from five to 21/2 in the past three years.

Oregon's Chief Justice Paul DeMuniz ordered the full-day closure of Oregon's state courts on nine Fridays during the biennium, most of which are near holiday dates such as Thanksgiving, Memorial Day and Martin Luther King weekends. Employees are also being required to take up to five additional days off without pay.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Beth Heckert said the court's reduced hours, furlough days and the complete elimination of a telephone receptionist has affected the DA's office, particularly on cases with tight prosecution time frames.

"Sometimes it's hard to reach someone over at the court," Heckert said. "And they simply are not able to get things processed as quickly as they used to before the cuts."

Earlier in the biennium, former trial court administrator Jim Adams cut a portion of funding for the treatment court, and reduced staffing hours for clerks in the criminal court, civil court and mail room. A civil file clerk position was also eliminated. Adams warned the cuts would affect the timely retrieval and filing of court documents.

Adams also cut pretrial release services staffing in half. Kleker had to eliminate the remaining staff in the release assistance office, knowing full well those cuts will affect prisoners, prosecutors and judges.

"It's a public safety issue, really," Kleker said.

Pretrial release services staff members previously met with prisoners being held at the county jail prior to their trials. They gathered information for the court, including the accused's prior criminal histories, background from police reports on their current cases and their ties to the community, which helped determine appropriate bail, Heckert said. Closing the department means the District Attorney's Office is now tasked with that burden.

The loss of the employees means some inmates who may have qualified to be released on their own recognizance are being ordered to pay bail. In other cases lower than normal bail amounts may be set because of hasty courtroom negotiations by prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges during arraignment hearings, she said.

"It seems a little more haphazard," Heckert said.

Bailiff services were reduced by in October, with two bailiffs laid off. Beginning Tuesday the last two part-time bailiffs' positions will be eliminated, Kleker said, adding Jackson County Circuit Court was one of the last in the state to have paid bailiffs.

Bailiffs help maintain order in the court, distribute paperwork to plaintiffs and defendants, deal with distractions such as crying babies in the courtroom and help prevent mistrials by helping keep jurors in order, said Jackson County Circuit Court presiding Judge Lorenzo Mejia.

"They help a lot with the paper flow," Mejia said.

An improperly filed or filled out document can delay a criminal trial, send someone to jail for failure to appear if dates get mixed up, or affect a divorce or child custody case, he said.

Mejia said court clerks are trying to pick up the bailiffs' juror duties, but they are already taxed with tracking witness testimony and handling courtroom exhibits, Mejia said.

Mejia said he has seen arraignment hearings delayed as a result of the cuts, and he voiced concerns the cuts may result in the court becoming a bottleneck in the judicial process.

"We all have more work and less people to do it. We're really stretched," Mejia said. "I don't know if people see it."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail

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