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VOL. 9 | NO. 17 | Saturday, April 23, 2016

Judicial Commissioners Grow in Number, Job Description

By Bill Dries

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Seventeen years ago, there were three newly minted judicial commissioners working at the Criminal Justice Center.

In makeshift quarters at first, they primarily worked night-time hours after the criminal courts, General Sessions and Shelby County Criminal, had closed for the day.

The commissioners set bonds, reviewed probable cause findings by police officers and sheriff’s deputies, looked over misdemeanor citations, and reviewed and signed arrest and search warrants.

The idea was to reduce the Shelby County Jail population by releasing those charged with offenses who were not a public threat and who were likely to show up for their next court dates.

The eight full-time Shelby County Judicial Commissioners set a lot of bonds, issued many orders of protection and reviewed numerous misdemeanor citations in 2015.

Here are the numbers from the commissioners’ annual report to county government:

Misdemeanor Citations  24,658

Bonds  18,942

Probable Cause Affidavits  17,578 

Orders of Protection 13,064 

Arrest Warrants  6,922 

Orders Granting Bail  6,528 

Source: Shelby County Judicial Commissioners Annual Report 2015

The commissioners sometimes held hearings with defendants present on video screens from the jail, some of the first video proceedings from 201 Poplar.

Today there are eight full-time judicial commissioners with their own hearing room and their role in the local criminal justice system has expanded greatly.

“They have expanded … over the past decade or so including just doing more types of hearings,” said General Sessions Court Judge Gerald Skahan, whose administrative duties include overseeing the commissioners. “The numbers of what they are doing have greatly increased.”

The commissioners now review orders of protection. The timeliness and promptness in issuing those orders is considered a crucial part of a better criminal justice system response to domestic violence.

The commissioners also do asset forfeiture hearings.

During weekday court hours in General Sessions and Criminal Court, the commissioners have full dockets of hearings on protection orders as well as warrants.

Added to the docket in 2008 were preliminary hearings on felony drug cases that are on their way to Shelby County Drug Court. And in 2012, that was expanded to include initial arraignments for Drug Court defendants who are in jail or not in jail.

Last year, Skahan issued an order that makes the judicial commissioners replacements for General Sessions Court judges when they are sick or otherwise absent.

“When I was still practicing privately I would sit special here and there,” Skahan said of how the absences had been handled on a random basis. “You don’t tell a judge no. … It’s hard to tell a sitting judge no.”

But as a judge on a full-time basis, Skahan says those kind of substitute judges don’t keep cases moving through the legal system.

“What we basically did was just reset everything. No lawyer sitting in there is going to hear trials and make rulings and things like that,” he said. “That changed quite a bit with the commissioners now in that role because they are quasi-judicial and they have the authority. … It improves the quality of justice. … It keeps the flow going much more like it should be.”

Skahan recently requested another full-time commissioner and a part-time commissioner, a request he took to the Shelby County Commission as part of the annual report on what judicial commissioners have done. He’s waiting to see if the funding for that makes it into Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s budget proposal.

Skahan says the request reflects continued growth in the scope of the local criminal justice system, even though the Shelby County Jail population has decreased in the last 17 years.

“We are continuing to adapt and continuing to handle everything,” he said. “It accesses people to justice much quicker, whether they are a victim, whether they are a defendant. It speeds them up, getting to where they need to be in the justice system instead of getting in line.”

Skahan’s recent report to Shelby County Commissioners on the work of the eight commissioners in 2015 cites just under 19,000 bonds set and 13,000 orders of protection.

“They free up time for us to actually focus on the cases,” he said of the judges. “It’s freed up a lot more time for a judge to actually be in the courtroom handling cases, focusing on the defendants, focusing on a case – the prosecution and defense – and putting the time in that’s necessary to do that instead of four hours a day reviewing misdemeanor citations and gun orders and pawn shop citations and subpoenas.”

He is quick to point out that judges still do some of that work as well.

But the commissioners have cut the time to get a hearing that may result in a release, with or without bond, from 12 hours to one or two hours.

“It’s gone a long way toward reducing the stress on the jail,” he said.

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