Weak staffing hurts order in the courts

TEXT OF STORY

Steve Chiotakis: Sure, technically the recession may be over. But people working at a lot of local courthouses don't seem to be feeling it. A surge of recession-related cases and state budgets in the red are forcing local court systems to the breaking point. Reporter Jay Field has more.


Jay Field: The mortgage crisis hit the Chicago suburbs especially hard over the past year. In Lake County north of the city, a surge of mortgage defaults has doubled foreclosures in some middle and upper-middle class communities.

As a result, Associate Judge Mitchell Hoffman with the 19th Illinois Circuit Court in Waukegan ended up with scores of additional cases:

Mitchell Hoffmans: All the foreclosure cases would come into courtroom 302 on Wednesday mornings.

But before too long, Judge Hoffman found he couldn't handle them all by himself.

Hoffman: And we would have to have two or three other judges pitch in with the call and send cases down to every courtroom on this hallway.

We're talking hundreds of people, every Wednesday morning, crowded into this small hallway. So court officials began sending all undisputed foreclosure cases to a smaller traffic court nearby.

Daniel Hall, with the National Center for State Courts, says the scene has been repeated in courtrooms across the country as the recession claims victims on a broad scale.

Daniel Hall: Not only did you have the foreclosure cases, but you have contract disputes that have gone up 37 percent. You've got assaults and family cases that are rising in states like New York. And so you have a cumulative impact of these kind of cases flooding the courts, you know at the same time budgets are being cut.

In Illinois, officials are struggling with a growing stack of unpaid bills and a deficit projected to top $11 billion this year. State courts face a $21 million budget cut. Next door,in Iowa, that state's Chief Justice warned of "assembly line justice," where cases could get short shrift.

Hall: The big risk is that you're going to get people losing their homes.

Who might otherwise have been able to keep them. Some states are trying to consolidate and restructure their court systems, but no amount of restructuring is likely to spare more homeowners and lots of other people already in pain from more.

In Waukegan, Ill., I'm Jay Field for Marketplace.

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