Scott County chips away at backlog

With the help of federal funding, Scott County is chipping away at a backlog of court cases stemming from the COVID pandemic.

When the COVID pandemic began and courts were essentially shut down outside of urgent matters, it created a backlog for county attorney’s offices across the state.

At one point, Scott County had over 500 cases that were deemed backlogged, Scott County Chief Financial Officer Danny Lenz said during a County Commission meeting Sept. 6.

As a way to try to solve the backlog, Scott County commissioners approved the allocation of about $1.4 million in funding for extra staff in the County Attorney’s Office.

“The vast majority of all those positions are really going to address the court backlog that materialized due to the pandemic,” Lenz said.

County Attorney Ron Hocevar and other officials said they feel that the plan has worked out so far, with the county down to just 10 backlogged cases as of Aug. 26.

REDUCING NUMBERSAs a way to reduce the number of cases, the Minnesota Judicial Council came up with benchmarks for counties to meet.

For example, one target was reducing the backlog by 20 percent every four months and keeping a 100-percent pace for all new cases.

But the biggest one was a deadline of having all backlogged cases completed by June 2023, which was accomplished almost a year earlier, Lenz said.

Lenz said that he has been told that the county and the judicial district are being looked at as a “model” by other counties. According to Lenz, currently about 1,250 cases are pending—388 of which are 12 months or older.

“With that full court backlog diminishing, this has become the focus of getting that 388 a little bit under control,” he said.

Hocevar was able to add two full-time attorneys, a victim witness assistant, a legal assistant, and a part-time law clerk to his staff. He noted that Scott County is one of the only counties in the state with a fully staffed county attorney’s office at this time.

“We didn’t get nearly the applicants we normally get when we post positions like that, but the applicants we did have were all top notch and I am extremely happy with the hires we got out of there,” Hocevar said.

FUTURE FUNDINGOne concern raised during the Sept. 6 commissioners meeting was how the positions would be funded in the future.

Lenz explained that the positions, along with another approximately $1.5 million in salaries for other county employees, was being funded from the federal American Rescue Plan through the end of 2024.

After that, commissioners must decide if they want to continue with the extra staffing. “We have built-in funding into our five-year financial forecast in order to incorporate and assume that we would keep these positions, but that is a decision yet for the board to make,” Lenz said.

Asked about that in an interview following the meeting, Hocevar said that he supports having the positions going forward but that it “remains to be seen” if it will continue after 2024. “I certainly believe that the numbers in my office justify keeping all these positions on,” he said. “We definitely have the numbers for it. We unfortunately have the crime for it.”

Hocevar pointed out that the office does more than just criminal law. It includes civil law, juvenile law, and other things like child protective orders. “We definitely have the work to keep all these people busy on a full-time basis,” he said.

Hocevar said that he also sees an increase in the seriousness of crimes across the county.

Asked to elaborate, he explained that it’s not just Scott County residents who are committing crimes. He said a number of entertainment venues across the county bring visitors from all over.

“We have to deal with them while they’re in the county and if they commit a crime,” he said.