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Wheels of justice turning

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Belmont County’s courts have kept up during the COVID-19 pandemic, while some courts throughout the state have suffered a backlog in cases.

In late June, Gov. Mike DeWine announced the new Ohio Court Backlog Reduction Program, through the Office of Criminal Justice Services, is a division of the Ohio Department of Public Safety, with a total of $10 million in available funding for the timely resolution of cases. The funds can be used for more pre-trial programs, virtual competency assessment teams, and technology to simplify bench warrant processing. Grants can also be used to recruit court staff, fill vacancies, or resume positions that had been eliminated due to the pandemic.

However local judges said courts have adapted and taken to technology to continue operations.

Belmont County Common Pleas Judge John Vavra said there is no backlog in his docket. Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato said the situation is the same in his courtroom.

“We stay current on our cases. As they come, we try them, we are very much in favor of anything (DeWine) can do to help out the various common pleas courts,” Fregiato said.

Belmont County Western Division Judge Eric Costine reflected on the situation.

“If the governor’s bringing dollars to court systems to move cases along quicker, that’s always a plus,” Costine said. “Personally I believe that there’s probably more of a backlog in criminal cases in urban areas. … All of the judges of Belmont County do a pretty good job of making sure their cases move forward in a systematic manner.”

Costine said virtual competency assessment teams were always valuable in instances where a defendant must be evaluated for competency.

“That is always a lengthy process,” he said. This is because they must work with the forensic diagnostic center in Byesville.

“Those guys are always busy, so they are put on somewhat of a backlog. We’ve noted since COVID hit that that has gotten extremely behind in trying to get competency evaluations done, so if the governor has a plan to try to streamline that…virtual or Zoom to do competency evaluations perhaps, or even to do some additional funding to find other individuals to do the competency evaluations, I can definitely see how that could be good.”

Costine noted the importance of a speedy trial.

“They could be dismissed if there was a violation of the speedy trial statute, so it is always something that is on the back of every judge’s mind on criminal cases and move them forward,” Costine said, adding that standard waivers of a speedy trial are not done in Belmont County.

“A lot of times the defendants don’t want them to be resolved quickly, so they’re waiving the speedy trial and the defendants are really the ones who are advocating that they want that case to slow down rather than speed up. It’s never somebody who’s in jail that does that,” Costine said.

He said procedures must always be followed in terms of evidence sharing and other processes, but the prosecution is fully cognizant of that.

“Before they even file a case, they have all of that readily available except on the most complex cases,” Costine said.

He said one important innovation has been technology to simplify bench warrant processing, and he often works with the sheriff’s department to use electronic signatures.

“All of the warrants right now can be done on a cell phone,” Costine said. He is able to read a warrant and Facetime the officer who sent the warrant to ask any questions, the officer can testify that the contents of the affidavit are true and Costine can electronically sign the warrant.

He added some cases are more complex and take longer.

“The judges need to be cognizant that there’s a defendant in that case, but there’s also a victim, and that victim deserves to be heard and to feel that justice may be served, they need to get some closure and to prolong a case only prolongs the anxiety of the victim,” Costine said.

Belmont County Eastern Division Judge David Trouten said he sees potential in the governor’s announcement.

“I was trying to brainstorm how we could get in on that,” he said. “We’re not backlogged, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to use that funding for other purposes to advance the court.”

Trouten said during the pandemic courts were determined to meet the challenge.

“I think the main reason is that we never shut down,” he said. “We were slowed up, but we made sure we were always hearing cases, that they didn’t fall behind. We stayed on top of it and we were just able to keep pressing through.”

He also said many of the innovations will be used during the return to normal.

“The biggest change that we’re still dealing with is the jail because they still have COVID coming in and out sometimes, so we still do a lot of video at the jail,” he said.

“We’ve used Zoom in situations where a defendant might be incarcerated in another county, we’ve used it for attorneys that are from far away (or have potential COVID issues),” he said. “It’s a good thing to have in the arsenal.”

As an added bonus, distance hearings also save on gas money.

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