Criminal justice committee has goals of improving communication, efficiency in judicial system

Law enforcement officials have resurrected an old criminal justice committee formed to encourage dialogue between police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and everyone in between.

The group met this week for the second time this year, and its moderator, county councilman and former judge Tim Crowley, says they’re already hacking away at some ways to improve communication and efficiency in the judicial system.

“We don’t make decisions, we don’t ever take a vote on anything,” Crowley said of the committee, which plans to meet quarterly at the Knox County Jail. “It’s just a forum.

“We get together and we talk.”

The committee, Crowley explained, was actually created years ago after county elected officials built the new jail. To stay ahead of the overcrowding issues that had plagued the county once before, councilman Bob Lechner approached Crowley, then Superior Court I Judge, and asked if he would lead a committee aimed at, among other things, keeping the jail population down.

Crowley, intrigued by the idea, agreed to strike a deal. He’d moderate Lechner’s committee if the county council agreed to provide court security. Lechner agreed, Crowley said, and for several years the county paid $10 per hour to off-duty police officers.

That program eventually gave way to the modern-day one, which is to assign full-time deputies to court security.

But the criminal justice committee, Crowley said, stuck around for several years with him at its helm, helping law enforcement officials, judges, attorneys, etc. keep the system running as smoothly as possible and to ward off the potential for jail overcrowding.

But when Crowley decided to retire in 2014, it all just stopped, he said.

“I just don’t think anybody wanted to take it on,” Crowley said.

“But it was a good thing. And I think people have missed it over the last four-and-a-half-years.”

Lechner, seeing the need for such a committee once again, went back to Crowley, now his fellow councilman, early this year and asked if he would be interested in bringing it back.

“The bottom line now is that the entire system is stressed,” Lechner said, “and my hope is that this committee can find ways to resolve some of these things people are talking about on a daily basis.

'These are the people on the sidelines every day, and yet every one of them has a unique perspective. If you think it’s a police problem, they’re there to address it. If you think it’s a prosecutor problem, they’re there to address it.

“There are 50 different reasons something isn’t working,” he said. “We’ll find the solution a lot faster if we work together.”

Crowley jumped at the chance to get involved once again, believing the communication that often came from those meetings vital. The root of what is now a good relationship between local police departments, he said, is a direct result of that first committee’s efforts.

So Crowley worked to reinstitute it, and the first meeting was held in April. In total, 22 local law enforcement officials, judges, attorneys, etc. showed up.

On Thursday, they had 24.

“We had two judges, four from the prosecutor’s office, a representative from the Public Defender Board, various other folks,” Crowley said. “Randy Crismore, another councilman was there, and a commissioner. We had four city police officers, some from the sheriff’s department, Bicknell police department, Vincennes University police department, probation and community corrections were there, Joe Williams from Drug Court, pretty much everybody that has any connection to the court system.

“And it went well. I think people missed not having it.”

For the most part, this newly-constituted committee is aimed at improving communications between the various departments. When they meet, member discuss issues round-table style, meaning no one is placed in a position of power over another.

There is no head of the table, Crowley said.

Disagreements may occur — they have already, Crowley said — but working through them will likely mean a judicial system that moves bit more swiftly and efficiently than it does now.

“Sometimes it gets a little heated. Sometimes people want to point a finger across the room and say, ‘It’s all your fault,’ but that’s where I come in and guide everybody back on track,” he said.

They’re focused on solutions, Crowley said, and on Thursday the group discussed at length the possibility of moving through the rather tedious process of bringing to Knox County a magistrate to help relieve the heavy burden on elected county judges.

The backlog here is great, with new cases sometimes taking as much as a month to get on a judge’s docket.

A magistrate — a civil officer who could help with minor offenses and preliminary hearings — could help relieve some of that pressure, but getting one requires approval from the General Assembly and the governor’s signature.

Then where would the county put then, Crowley asked rhetorically?

It would be a lengthy and tedious task to take on, but working together, it is a possibility, he pointed out.

They also spoke about a new criminal rule that goes into effect in Indiana in January. It requires a risk-assessment be performed on new offenders to determine whether a jail stay is necessary following an arrest.

The legislation — which also looks to quickly get offenders legal representation instead of waiting until after a preliminary hearing — is aimed at reducing jail populations by weeding out those who aren’t a flight risk.

How that would all work — and who would perform those assessments — remains to be seen, but it’s something the committee will continue to discuss.

They also talked at length, Crowley said, about overcrowding issues at community corrections and how they can all work together to help find relief.

Scott Brown, director of the community corrections program, said he’d found the meetings so far to be hugely beneficial.

“I think it’s good for all of these partners to get together and discuss these specific issues,” he said. “Typically those that are hot button issues.

“And inevitably something comes out of these meetings that I didn’t know. Somebody will say something, and you’ll get a different perspective on something. That’s always a good thing, I think.”

And while the group already has certain obstacles to overcome, their primary goal, Crowley said, is in improved communication and efficiency.

“Just getting people to talk is a good thing,” he said. “Everybody has their own issues, irritations they want to vocalize. There might be a little bit of friction, but it’s not something I will run from,

“Because if we’re talking, we’re heading in the right direction.”

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