15th Judicial District facing backlog and funding issues

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ACADIANA, La. (KLFY) – Is Acadiana’s Court System? Some say yes. Families have to wait years for the legal system to give them closure. 

So what are officials with the Lafayette Parish Court System doing to speed up this process, and what’s taking so long for justice to finally be served?

“First of all let me say that Lafayette Parish, or Acadia Parish, or Vermillion Parish are not much different than the justice system that is found throughout the state, and frankly throughout the country,” said Keith Stutes, District Attorney for the 15th Judicial Court.

Some claim the criminal justice system is broken.   

“The unfortunate truth is that when matters are now set for trial for the first time, it’s very unlikely they will actually go to trial that first time, because there will be cases that have been previously set that have a higher rank, than in a case is been set for the first time,” said Stutes.
 
The 15th Judicial District is comprised of Lafayette, Acadia and Vermilion Parishes.

District Attorney Keith Stutes has 30 Assistant D.A.’s.
3 of them handle nonsupport matters or criminal support matters, the remainder take care of felony, misdemeanor, assistance, traffic, and juvenile assistance legal matters. 
 
“In the 15th Judicial District, last year there were a  total of near 30,000 filings in the entire district. The bulk is traffic violations, but those still have to have court cases,” said Stutes.

The number of felonies and misdemeanors is around 10,000. Those require more court time and effort. 

“The timing and handling cases from the beginning, from the date of the offense to a conclusion is all dependent on a lot of factors. Including the number of cases filed in the jurisdiction, the number of judges elected to service those dockets, the number of Assistant D.A.’s, basically the people part of administering those matters,” said Stutes.

Many of the routine cases can be handled relative quickly. The more serious matters like crimes of violence and homicides, those can fall into the same timing and sequence of the lesser crimes.
It’s not unusual for dockets to be in excess of over 100 cases at a particular time. 

“It’s a complex issue, it’s definitely a manpower issue. Probably 95% of criminal defendants in our court, qualify for a court-appointed counsel, which means that there are limited attorneys available to do that, because there’s limited funding for court-appointed counsel,” said District Judge Marilyn Castle, for the 15th Judicial District.

Castle has served on the bar for almost 20 years. She says there’s 13 total judges in the entire district. 2 of those judges are dedicated solely to domestic cases and the remaining hear criminal cases. She oversees about 30 trials each month. 

“It’s so dependent on the circumstances of every case. Some cases are pretty much investigated by the time somebody is arrested, and the exchange of evidence is quick, and there’s maybe crime lab work to be done, and there are very few motions to file, and those cases are ready for trial quickly. Then you have others that are complicated, there’s a lot of crime work to be done,” said Castle.   

She says the Lafayette Parish Courthouse is in need of major renovations to keep up with the current times.

“We are in a lot of ways hampered by the lack of our facility. We have no holding cells here,” said Castle.

It can usually take 60 days for a trial to start, after the D.A. and the Defense say they are prepared to go to trial. 

There are times trials are delayed because of a lack of judges.  
Castle says their budget has been cut by the state and the parish, Stutes says he is facing the same problem. 

“Some cases could not be handled because definitely not have representation. That causes cases to be bogged and a matters to be continued, and created a backlog in the system over the past couple years,” said Castle.

Stutes says creating the docket system has helped speed up the judicial process, but there are more things that need to take place in order to get justice for future victims.

“The big answer may also be to increase court time, increase perhaps the number of criminal judges, also to increase the number of Assistant D.A.’s and public defenders, who are able to administer more cases,” he said.
 

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