Blue and orange-clad Pugsley Correctional Facility inmates were once a rare sight inside the circuit courtroom in Traverse City.
Defense attorney Paul Jarboe, who started practicing law in 1982 and who handles retained cases and is on the court’s roster for indigent defendants, said over the years he rarely saw the inmates in court.
That is, until recently. Last Friday, Jarboe said, he saw as many as five prison inmates in court waiting to take part in various criminal hearings.
And it’s not just more felony cases originating from the minimum security prison located to the east of Kingsley that are crowding the courtroom lately. Felony cases are up all around -- more than double if you compare the first quarter of 2013 with the first quarter of 2012.
“There’s clearly a palpable change, a noticeable change, in the volume of felony cases that are being issued,” Jarboe said.
Generally speaking, in Michigan, a felony is any crime that carries a sentence of a year or more in prison, while misdemeanor crimes are those punishable by one year or less in jail.
INCREASE IN COMPLAINTS
Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Robert Cooney, who took office in January, said he doesn’t believe he is charging cases differently from his predecessor, Alan Schneider, with the exception that he is now taking drug cases from Pugsley. Those used to be handled in-house at the prison.
He said he believes cases from the prison account for some of the increase and the rest can be attributed to an increase in complaints handled by police.
There is no question the number of felonies charged under Cooney is an increase from recent years.
Through April of this year, 117 felony cases were filed, according to 86th District Court records. During the same period a year earlier, just 47 felony cases were filed. Notably, misdemeanor cases are up, too.
At this rate, 2013 is on track to see well over twice as many felony cases as 2012. There were a total of 226 felony cases filed through all of last year.
The contrast is less stark if you compare the first quarters of 2011 and 2010 with 2013’s first quarter. There were 82 felony cases filed in 2010 and 59 in 2011.
Cooney, who has been with the prosecutor’s office since 1993, said he knows people think he’s a tough prosecutor, but he said he believes crime is increasing in the county.
“I have a bit of a reputation for being a bit tougher when it comes to charging and plea offers, but I don’t think that accounts for it,” Cooney said.
Cooney said he believes population growth in the area is catching up to crime statistics, much like it did a decade ago.
Crime was also up in Grand Traverse County in 2004 when jail overcrowding became such a problem the county needed to assemble a commission to look at it.
That led to the expansion of the jail by around 40 beds and a shift in the district court toward putting more resources into diversion programs like sobriety court and domestic violence court.
Cooney said he believes those measures staunched the growth of crime in the county for a while, but population growth has caused the county to see a growth in the crime rate again.
“I think we’re getting back to where we were back then,” Cooney said. “The numbers show that even if you implement all of the diversionary programs, ... that we are still under the number of beds that we ought to have in this county.”
PRISON & DRUGS
Cooney said he learned how to charge criminal cases from Schneider and, before him, from Dennis LaBelle. He said he believes he makes roughly the same decisions they would make.
He noted, however, that for the past eight years he served as civil counsel in the prosecutor’s office, so he wasn’t involved in a lot of the decisions about criminal cases.
“I was more involved in the civil end of it, what was going on in the criminal cases is something I don’t know about,” he said.
Cooney said he started to take drug cases from Pugsley because drugs have increasingly become a serious, destabilizing problem at the prison and administrators there asked him for help.
“I can see that there’s a serious problem going on with drugs and I’ve talked to the warden,” he said. “The prison is asking for help. They feel it’s important to send a message.”
He said the advantage of prosecuting drug cases is that a conviction means whatever sentence the inmate receives, it is automatically consecutive prison time to their current sentence.
Cooney said more drugs in the prison leads to other problems.
“It can cause a lot of fighting, turf battles, and other types of criminal behavior,” he said. “I want to make sure that I’m doing what I can to give them some support,” He also said the Pugsley cases cost the county less than typical cases because the state covers most of the costs.
Randy Smith, a seasoned defense attorney who works in the circuit court, disagrees with Cooney about the cause of the increase in felonies.
Smith believes Cooney is charging everything he can.
“The increase in felony cases stems from the fact that we’ve got a new prosecutor in town who is charging anything and everything brought in by a law enforcement agency,” Smith said in an email. “At this juncture, from the outside, it appears that the exercise of actual prosecutorial discretion is kept at a minimum, in terms of what or who to charge.”
Smith said he believes prisoners caught with drugs at Pugsley could be handled more effectively and more efficiently by the jail administration, which can increase their minimum sentence. Inmates can be made to spend more time in prison for drug infractions without taking them to court, he said.
“Every infraction of a prison rule does not warrant keeping a prisoner until his maximum sentence either,” Smith wrote. “Discretion needs to be carefully exercised in determining what is or is not an appropriate administrative sanction.”
Keeping people locked up, he noted, costs taxpayers $30,000 to $40,000 per year.
Defense attorney Jarboe said he also believes Cooney is charging more felonies in general than were being charged before he took office.
“I think that any time that there’s a newly elected prosecutor, there’s always a change in charging decisions, and we’ve seen quite an increase in felony cases coming through the Grand Traverse County’s Prosecutor’s Office in both retained cases and appointed cases,” he said. “The pendulum has swung.”
Jarboe said the influx of criminal cases is already seeming to tax the court. The calendar is filling up with pretrial conferences and trial dates.
“I’m not saying I think what he is doing is wrong,” Jarboe said. “I think those are administrative decisions he has to make.”
He added: “I think there is a potential that the prison cases, if they’re charged as new felonies, could overwhelm our county’s resources and the court’s resources.”