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Lancaster County court cases drop, but it’s not clear why or how long trend may hold

January 4, 2019

Most who go to the Lancaster County Hall of Justice regularly may not guess it, but new filings in pretty much every category except for felony criminal cases have been dropping over the past five years.

And it’s not really clear why.

The revelation came at an annual meeting in December of the Judicial Resources Commission, a statewide group that looks at things like case numbers and whether each judicial district has the right number of judges.

In all, judges spent 106,000 fewer minutes on cases filed in Lancaster County District Court than the prior fiscal year, and 5,000 fewer in county court, according to a weighted caseload report.

The breakdown showed misdemeanor cases down dramatically here. Traffic tickets, too.

Nebraska Supreme Court Justice Stephanie Stacey, who chairs the commission, joked that maybe Lincoln people are just driving better.

When commission member Tim Engler, president of the State Bar Association, asked if there was any research or data to explain the drop in cases, Stacy said they only know which part of the docket is affected.

“But we don’t know why,” she said.

To get at an answer, the Journal Star asked Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon, whose office files the majority of criminal cases, civil cases involving child support collection and all juvenile cases.

“It’s interesting. I know LPD numbers are up (for the year),” the county’s top prosecutor said.

Condon said the commission’s numbers were from the end of the fiscal year. He’s not sure how the calendar-year numbers will end up.

“We’re trying to get a hold of it,” he said.

There are certain kinds of cases Condon expects to be down, like DUIs, because of ride-share services like Uber and Lyft that have grown more popular; and in juvenile court, where efforts to let schools handle most truancy cases have helped.

But overall Condon thinks the numbers come with an asterisk of sorts, based on how they’re counted — or not counted.

He said part of the decrease may be explained by all the diversion efforts meant to keep people out of prison that came as a result of LB605, the criminal justice reform bill state lawmakers passed in 2015.

Condon said there’s intensive supervision diversion, drug court, veterans court and even a dozen or so people going through a new pilot project for mental health court in Lancaster County.

Attorneys in his office still are handling all those cases, even if some of them never are filed in court. And problem-solving courts tend to take more time than traditional cases, Condon said.

He said his attorneys also are handling post-release supervision cases, which came as a result of LB605 and are taken up when inmates are released. They aren’t reflected in the totals either, he said, because they’re tied to old case numbers.

Then there are the felony cases, which were up in the fiscal year report and have kept climbing, he said.

Condon said they were up 14 percent in November, according to Lincoln police records.

“If they’ve seen that increase, we’ve seen it here,” he said.

It’s a bit of a balancing act. Condon said most of his attorneys who handle felonies consistently carry at least 150 cases. Double that for attorneys handling drug cases. Misdemeanor attorneys carry about 275 to 300 cases.

“We’re carrying big loads,” he said.

Whatever the reason behind the numbers, Condon is doubtful the decrease will hold, given Lincoln’s population growth.

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