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November 23, 2010

Clutter in the court: Officials say ‘offense inflation’ may account for rise in court cases in Indiana

INDIANAPOLIS — Almost 2 million new court cases were filed in Indiana last year, continuing an upward trend in litigation and prosecution that some state officials blame on “offense inflation.”

A report released Monday by the Indiana Supreme Court’s Division of State Court Administration shows a 16.5 percent increase in the number of criminal and civil cases filed in state courts from 2000 to 2009.

The number of criminal cases have gone up by more than 17 percent in the decade while Indiana’s population has increased by less than 6 percent since 2000.

It was more dramatic locally, with Clark County cases up 46 percent from 2000 to 2009; Floyd’s caseload increased by 57 percent.

Indiana Court of Appeals Chief Justice John Baker said the numbers reflect a more aggressive use of the courts.

“I don’t think we’ve misbehaved more in that time period,” Baker said.

But more bad behavior has become criminalized, he said, with punishments escalating. He said the number of criminal statues in Indiana’s penal code has gone from about 200 in 1977, when there was a major rewriting of Indiana’s laws, to nearly 2,000 today.

Baker also cited what he called “offense inflation” — violations that have escalated from infraction to misdemeanor and misdemeanor to felony. According to the report, one of the biggest increases is in Class D felonies filed, from 39,114 to 51,524 in 2009, a nearly 32 percent increase.

The result of the rising numbers: Overcrowded court dockets and an increase in Indiana’s prison population. In 2009, for example, the prison population nationwide dropped 0.4 percent but in Indiana, it rose 5.3 percent. That’s the largest percentage increase in any state in the nation.

The report also indicates that in many counties, the number of judges and court personnel has not increased at the same pace as the rise in cases. In Boone County, for example, the judges there are carrying a heavier “weighted” case load — based on the time and resources it takes to process a case — than in any other county.

Last year, according to the report, it cost Indiana taxpayers almost $400 million to operate the courts. That amount could be reduced, Baker said, if judges would streamline and share their resources. But he said too many judges rule over what they consider their “personal fiefdoms” for that to occur easily.

What the “2009 Indiana Judicial Service Report and Indiana Probation Report” also shows is just how many Hoosiers are impacted by the increase in criminal prosecutions.

Lilia Judson, executive director of the Division of State Court Administration, which issued the report, said one in 90 Indiana residents were charged with a felony in 2009. That’s up from one in 135 in 1990.

“Does that mean we’re more criminal than before? Or is law enforcement more active?” Judson said.

Not all counties saw a rise in court cases. Some, including Davies, Rush and Ripley counties in Southern Indiana saw the number of court cases either hold steady or decrease over the decade.

But what did rise in many counties, often at a higher rate than civil and criminal cases filed, were the number of cases in which the court had to step in to protect children from harm or neglect. The number of Child in Need of Services cases, known as CHINS, rose from 8,083 in 2000 to 12,625 in 2010, a 56 percent increase.

The 1,734 page, multivolume report is posted online at www.in.gov/judiciary.

It includes a wide range of information about the courts, from the number of murder cases filed — down over the decade — to the number of mortgage foreclosure filings — up nearly 20 percent from 2005 to 2009 but down by 8.7 percent in 2009.

The Indiana General Assembly requires the compilation of the annual report, now done electronically. The first one was compiled by hand in 1976.

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