Roanoke Times

Less Crime Also Doesn’t Pay in Western Virginia’s federal Courts

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Lighter criminal and civil caseloads in Western Virginia may result in the need for fewer courthouses and less staffing.

by Mike Gangloff

The number of cases in Western Virginia’s federal courts is falling, bucking a national increase and raising the possibility that in a time of tight federal budgets, the region could be headed for vacant judgeships and closed courthouses.

The region’s caseload, including criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits, has dropped every year except one since 2002, when the caseload peaked in the sprawling federal district that covers Virginia west of Charlottesville. Since 1996, the number of cases filed each year in district court has fallen by a third.

“We’re all being asked to do more with less,” said U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy, the district’s top federal prosecutor.

“We’re all braced for what that’s actually going to look like,” he said.

Crowded federal dockets in metropolitan districts have driven an overall increase in cases in the United States. Since 2005, the number of cases filed in the nation’s district courts has climbed every year. The number of cases filed in 2010 increased more than 25 percent from 15 years earlier.

Glen Conrad, chief judge of the Western District of Virginia, said most rural districts around the country have not shared the growth of their urban counterparts. But most have at least maintained caseloads, he said.

If the caseload here keeps dropping, the district could be barred from hiring a new judge the next time a judgeship comes open, Conrad predicted.

“The next time … I would anticipate it will be kind of a close question” whether to fill a vacant position, Conrad said. “Right now, it would be questionable.”

The region’s federal district is in the process of appointing a new magistrate judge to replace Michael Urbanski, who this year was elevated to a district judge seat.

Further into the future, federal courthouses could even be shuttered, as the U.S. District Court in Big Stone Gap was from the 1930s to the 1970s, Conrad said. Big Stone Gap remains one of the least used of the district’s federal courts, along with Danville, Conrad said.

Caseload is a major factor in how money is divided among the nation’s federal court districts, Richard Carelli, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts in Washington, said in an email.

“Simply put, a steady downward trend in a judicial district’s caseload statistics could result in a corresponding decline in staffing,” Carelli said.

The declining caseload in the Western Virginia district has been offset for probation officers by increased supervision duties resulting from the resentencing and release of people incarcerated on crack cocaine charges, said Phil Williams, who leads the district’s federal probation office.

At one point early in the decade, the Western District of Virginia had more crack cocaine cases per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. That has not been true for years, and the cocaine-sentencing boost for probation officers is short term, Williams said in an email. If the district’s caseload doesn’t increase, the probation office likely will face cuts, Williams said.

“The effect would be added difficulty in our efforts to provide necessary supervision services in the community,” Williams said.

Roanoke Circuit Court figures for the past three years show a similar decline in civil and criminal caseloads.

The decline in crime, the slack economy and federal court rules that some lawyers find daunting may be driving the federal drop.

“My guess is that lawyers generally feel unfamiliar with all the federal court rules and thus feel more comfortable in state court,” Bill Poff, a Roanoke attorney with decades of federal experience, said in an email.

“The ultimate answer may be economics,” Poff continued. “There is the perception that litigation in federal court is more expensive. People are also less likely to litigate in times of economic downturns.”

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, agreed, saying a more robust economy and larger population can fuel civil lawsuits.

Heaphy said the number of white-collar criminals pursued by his office has remained stable. But drug and gun cases have fallen, he said.

Three elements may be affecting that slowing criminal caseload, Heaphy said.

First, more cases are staying in state court rather than being supplanted by federal charges, Heaphy said. At one time, local law enforcers tried to maneuver criminal cases into federal court, where mandatory sentences tend to be harsher.

At the same time, budget cuts at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have limited investigators’ reach.

“The DEA and ATF task forces that are our bread-and-butter case generators are down people,” Heaphy said. Similarly, local police are “pulling all their resources just to keep the streets patrolled,” he said.

The final factor “is fairly obvious,” Heaphy said. “Crime is just down.”

Jeffrey Butts, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said in an email that criminologists credit the expansion of the prison population, improvements in policing, shifts in the job market and patterns of drug use among the factors that have reduced crime. But “even when all these things are added together, we still can’t explain close to half of why crime rates go up and down. They just do,” Butts said.

Conrad said federal judges discussed Western Virginia’s falling caseload at a conference this summer. There was agreement that the use of sentencing guidelines, which add a measure of certainty to the outcome of a criminal case, and mediation, which can resolve civil litigation without expensive trials, were reducing the number of jury trials, he said.

But there was no consensus about why the district’s numbers are falling more than others with similar rural characteristics.

Conrad said the most dramatic effects of the falling caseload, such as courthouse closings, likely are distant. But as the trend continues, it prompts growing concern, he said.

“We want to be overutilized. We want to be a place where people feel comfortable bringing disputes,” Conrad said.