Pharos-Tribune

October 30, 2012

State courts see decrease in filings

by Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — The numbers of criminal and civil cases filed in Indiana are on a downward trend in a wide range of categories, from murder charges to mortgage foreclosures, according to a newly released report that also shows an upward trend in the money that counties are spending to keep offenders out of prison.

The 2011 Indiana Judicial Service Report, released Monday, shows the overall number of criminal and civil cases being handled by judges and court personnel down to about where it was a decade ago.

The 1.6 million cases filed in 2011 marks the second lowest number of cases filed in Indiana courts since 2002, and shows a significant drop from the nearly 1.9 million cases filed in 2008. But that 1.6 million number – which covers everything from felony criminal prosecutions to divorce cases – also shows the frequency in which Indiana residents come into contact with the state’s court system, said Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Dickson.

“Other than the BMV, I can’t think of any other state agency that touches so many citizens as the courts,” said Dickson during a press conference in which details of the report were released.

The report on the state’s trial courts, compiled annually by the Indiana Supreme Court’s Division of State Court of Administration, is massive. At 1,700 pages, covering three volumes, it includes an exhaustive amount of information about the number and nature of court filings, including court cases and court expenditures by county.

It shows, for example, that the number of juvenile delinquency cases handled by the courts was down to about 19,500 last year – about 6,500 fewer cases than filed in 2002. But the number of cases involving the termination of parental rights – typically involving cases where children have been abused or neglected – was up to 2,718 in 2011. That’s about 1,200 more than 2002.

The number of murder cases filed in Indiana has dropped almost steadily from 293 cases filed a decade ago to the 193 cases filed in 2011, marking a 31 percent decrease in filings. The number of felony criminal cases filed has increased 18 percent since 2002, while the number of misdemeanor cases has dropped by 15 percent in a decade. The report also shows that the number of mortgage foreclosure filings is down more than 30 percent since 2008 – the beginning of the mortgage foreclosure crisis that’s still being felt. There were more than 45,000 mortgage foreclosures filed in 2008; the number dropped to 30,272 in 2011.

The number of civil collection filings and small claims filings also continued to drop from 2010 to 2011, though the number of cases involving divorce and protective orders are still steadily increasing. The number of filings for protective orders has gone up by 35 percent, from 2002 to 2011. Dickson credited a variety of factors for the overall drop in criminal and civil cases since 2008, when nearly 2 million cases were filed. Among them, he said, was the increasing cost of civil litigation and attorney fees; the increase in dispute-resolution programs aimed at keeping people out of the courts; and an increase in diversion programs that allow traffic violators and some low-level offenders to avoid criminal charges.

“Strenuous efforts in alternative dispute resolution and mediation are, we think, reaping effects where people are taking responsibilities for settling their own disputes and maintaining control of their lives a little bit better than happens when a matter goes into litigation,” Dickson said.

One area that’s seen a major increase, according to the report: the cost of probation services borne by counties. The cost of providing probation services, which include drug and substance abuse treatment programs, community-based supervision of offenders, and other efforts aimed at keeping offenders out of prison, was up to nearly $90 million in 2011 – an increase of more than $20 million since 2007.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.