By EILEEN MCCLORY
More people are expected to be indicted this year for felony crimes in Hancock County than during any other year since 1991.
The surge in indictments appears to stem from the opiate and drug crisis, but other types of cases have also contributed to the problem.
Between 370 and 390 indictments are expected by the end of the year, according to estimates from the Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office. As of Oct. 31, 319 indictments had been filed in 2017.
Even the low end of the estimate is higher than the 355 indictments filed in 2016, and the 351 indictments in 2015.
“Certainly there is a significant increase starting in 2015 that hasn’t stopped,” said Hancock County Prosecutor Phil Riegle. “It’s accelerated this year.”
“I think overall there is an upward trend,” said Judge Jonathan Starn, one of the two Hancock County Common Pleas Court judges. “I think the most significant trend is the opiate criss. You also see cases related to it. Theft offenses go up because (addicts) steal to get the drugs.”
The number of indictments is not the only problem those in the Hancock County justice system are facing. These cases are legally and socially complicated, leading to more headaches for county justice officials.
The majority of indictments are for drug-related crimes, according to data provided by Hancock County Common Pleas Court. Those crimes have skyrocketed since 2015.
There were fewer than 100 indictments related to drugs in 2013, but nearly 200 are drug-related so far in 2017.
“Certainly addiction has played a huge part of it, and I don’t want to just say the opiate crisis,” Riegle said. “It’s not just meth, opiates or cocaine, it’s an addiction problem in general.”
Riegle said the prosecutor’s office has also seen an increase in property crimes because addicts break into homes to find items to steal and sell for drugs.
Indictments for sex crimes are also up slightly, though Riegle said there isn’t a clear reason why the numbers are rising.
Riegle said these cases are complicated and take a long time to prosecute. Rape and child sexual violence crimes, for example, require expert testimony.
“It’s a lot of big cases as well as the volume,” Riegle said of the workload on his staff.
A new assistant prosecutor, Steve Powell, was hired at the beginning of the year after the Hancock County commissioners provided Riegle with the needed funding. Riegle came into office last October.
“When I came into office, I told my team we’re going to take cases we believe in,” Riegle said. “We won’t put numbers on it, or not take a case because there are too many that year. We’ll prosecute anyone who we think needs to be.”
Probation and court services
Hancock County Director of Court Services and Chief Probation Officer Kim Switzer said many of the low-level felonies that the court deals with are socially complicated.
Low-level felony indictments often involve addiction. Switzer said. The court works with addicts to try to treat their addiction and help them succeed in staying away from drugs.
“As you can imagine, they are really struggling,” Switzer said. “These are cases that have needs that we’ve never seen before, either.”
Many addicts do not have stable housing, but are able to get out of jail on bond. Then they may relapse. Switzer said their families may not be willing or able to help the addicts any longer, cutting off a resource.
Switzer said the workload has increased for her staff by nearly a third. Many of those cost increases were covered by state grants, but she said she may have to ask the county commissioners for financial help in 2018.
“We are happy to try to keep the community safe, but we are concerned about one-third of (our) work going up,” she said.
Judge Reginald Routson, the second Hancock County Common Pleas Court judge, said the workload has also strained the court’s dockets. Even though there are more cases, there isn’t more time during the day, so Routson said criminal cases get pushed further into the future.
Lt. Ryan Kidwell, jail administrator at the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office, said the increase in indictments has been only one factor in the overcrowding problem at the jail.
“Anytime you have the court process increase, it affects the justice system,” Kidwell said.
The jail handles people when they are arrested, and if they are sentenced to serve time in jail, and if they are sent back to jail for probation violations, which is frequent with drug-related felons.
But, Kidwell said, while the increase in indictments has played a role in jail overcrowding, other factors, such as new municipal and common pleas court judges, have also contributed.
Like the prosecutor’s office and the common pleas court, the Hancock County Public Defender’s Office has seen a dramatic uptick in its workload.
“The amount of felony cases we have has increased. The number of people we’re representing on felony cases has increased,” said Paul Maekask, chief public defender.
Adding to the workload are clients who have multiple cases, such as felonies in surrounding counties, and cases in municipal courts or juvenile court.
“You could have an addicted mother who is charged with a felony for heroin, who also has a pending misdemeanor for theft to support that habit, and also is losing her kids because she is addicted and has a juvenile case and a children’s protective services case. Just as an example,” said Bret Spaeth, a private Findlay attorney who is on the public defender commission.
Public defenders have to juggle these multiple cases.
The Hancock County Public Defender’s Office assigns each public defender to a different judge in Hancock County, meaning defenders specialize in specific types of law. That means multiple defenders will often be working with the same defendant on multiple charges.
Unpaid interns from area colleges are helping with the increased workload, Spaeth said. Four interns, the most the defender’s office has ever had, are helping with administrative tasks.
Maekask said interns may not be able to absorb all the work if the caseload continues to increase.
If the number of indictments continues to rise, “we’re going to have to look into hiring more staff and more attorneys,” Maekask said.
“I do think that the increased indictments is directly related to the heroin problem,” Maekask said. “I think you’d have a hard time finding anyone that’s going to argue against that.”