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State courts get $1M federal grant to study delays in criminal case processing

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State Court Administrator Sally Holewa.

The North Dakota Court System is getting a federal grant of nearly $1 million for an effort to reduce delays in criminal case processing.

The U.S Department of Justice was looking for case studies in rural states where services were sparse and where mental health and poverty might be factors, according to State Court Administrator Sally Holewa.

“We’re quite nimble because we’re small and flexible in introducing changes,” she said.

The three-year project includes the Northeast, Northeast Central, East Central and South Central judicial districts.  Bismarck-Mandan is in the South Central District.

Those districts represent “a cross-section of case management practices,” Holewa said, and include areas where mental health and substance abuse treatment programs are scarce. Court officials will use focus groups to note practices that work well, pinpoint issues that cause delays, and put changes into practice.

It’s the first time the state system has won the grant, according to Holewa.

“This is a great opportunity for us,” she said. “It will give us the expertise and the resources to help us do better.”

The goal is to have cases completely processed within one year. Holewa told Prairie Public that while most criminal cases meet that deadline, some do not, due to a variety of reasons ranging from no one being available to do a mental health evaluation, to staffing shortages.

"It could be something as simple as a vacancy in the state's attorney's office, or an attorney who's ill, and no other attorneys can pick up the case," she said. "All of those things can be factors when cases get old."

She added that most rural counties have only one judge, and "If the judge gets ill, there's delay."

The National Center for State Courts will serve as the primary consultant and research arm for the project. Frank Racek, former presiding judge for the East Central Judicial District, will serve as an expert consultant on North Dakota law and case management. What is learned will be shared with other rural states.

(Prairie Public's Dave Thompson contributed to this story.)

Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com

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