Franklin County Prosecutor Matt Becker is making the case for a major change in the 20th Circuit Court to alleviate the logjam of criminal cases.
That adjustment could be adding a judge to the circuit, or the more difficult route of redistricting the courts to make Franklin County a district by itself.
“We could definitely use another circuit judge, or any judge who could handle criminal cases,” Becker said. “It is on my wish list.”
Over the past 15 years, the number of criminal cases in circuit court has almost doubled. There has been an even more drastic increase in civil cases in the associate circuit court.
According to Becker, while the caseload has increased there still are the same number of judges handling those cases.
“These all soak up judicial time,” he said. “Nothing is over in civil or criminal cases until a judge issues an order.”
There are seven judges in the three-county 20th Circuit Court system, which also includes Gasconade and Osage counties. That includes Circuit Judge Craig Hellmann and Presiding Circuit Judge Ike Lamke.
Associate circuit judges in Franklin County are David Hoven, Stan Williams and Joe Purschke. The other two associate judges are Ada Brehe-Krueger, Gasconade County, and Robert D. Schollmeyer, Osage County.
According to Becker, when it comes to handling the caseload there are six judges hearing cases because one judge handles all probate and other civil matters.
“Those cases eat up a lot of time,” he added.
Court records state there were 8,031 cases filed throughout the circuit in 2018. Cases are broken into categories: associate circuit civil, 2,786; circuit civil, 265; orders of protection, 1,031; criminal, 3,374; and domestic relations, 575.
In comparison, in 2014, there were 4,284 total cases and the same number of judges. The breakdown of cases was: associate circuit civil, 1,063; circuit civil, 389; orders of protection, 812; criminal, 1,430; and domestic relations, 590.
“The trend lines are either up or static,” Becker said, “but we have the same number of judges.”
He noted that Circuit Judges Lamke and Hellmann also travel to Osage and Gasconade counties to hear cases about five or six times each month.
“The numbers here, as far as caseload, are gigantic,” Becker said. “These judges don’t leave early. They work evenings, but there are only so many hours in a day.”
It would take legislation to add a judge to the circuit, Becker said.
“We can talk about more cops and prosecutors, but until we get cases disposed, which requires a judge, we are creating larger and larger dockets,” he said. “We are already issuing more criminal cases than judicial resources to dispose of.”
Becker compared Franklin and Jefferson counties while discussing the merits of one county court district.
Jefferson County is its own district, the 23rd Circuit, where there are six circuit and six associate circuit judges.
Despite a population difference — 223,810 residents in Jefferson County, compared to 103,330 in Franklin County — the close proximity of the neighboring county and similar socioeconomics of the counties makes it a fair comparison, Becker explained.
When you add the populations of Osage, 13,664, and Gasconade counties, 14,808, it brings the population difference closer.
The criminal caseload is fairly close between the two counties, Becker noted.
In 2018, there were 3,694 criminal cases in the 23rd District, compared to the 3,374 in the 20th District Courts. That means there are twice as many judges in Jefferson County courts who hear slightly more cases than the six criminal judges here.
“It is not more dangerous here,” Becker remarked on the higher percentage of criminal cases in Franklin County.
“I don’t believe that to be the case.”
In total, there are 14,000 cases in Jefferson County circuit court compared to the 8,031 here. The number of associate civil cases in Jefferson County Court last year eclipsed those in the 20th District with 6,166 compared to 2,788 locally.
There also is a greater number of attorneys at the Jefferson County Prosecutor’s Office, 15, compared to eight in Franklin County.
According to state statute, there will be a review of court circuits beginning next year.
Missouri law states that in 2020, within the first 10 days of the legislative session, a “judicial conference” will submit a circuit realignment plan to House and Senate leaders.
The plan would include the numbers and boundaries of proposed judicial circuits together, a map of the proposed judicial circuits, as well as an analysis of information including circuit judge workload, populations of current and proposed districts, and other information.
After the plan and analysis is submitted to both the House and Senate, a redistricting plan would go into effect Jan. 1, 2021, according to statutes.
However, the plan cannot increase the number of circuits. That means that for Franklin County to be part of its own circuit, Gasconade and Osage counties must be placed into other circuits.
There are currently 46 judicial circuit in Missouri.
Statutes mandate that the circuit realignment plans be reviewed every 20 years. That means if there is not a change to the redistricting in the 2020 plan, it could be 2040 before a new alignment plan is submitted to legislators.