Ohio Chief Justice touts efforts to reduce case backlog, prison re-entry

LIMA — When Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy assumed that role in the state’s highest court, addressing the backlog of cases present in many courts throughout the state was a priority for her as well as helping those coming out of prison avoid recidivism. On Friday, Kennedy updated Allen County Republicans on the progress in those areas during a party luncheon at the Lima Eagles.

Kennedy said the backlog of cases still waiting to be heard in court has been an issue for some time, but Ohio courts are trending in the right direction.

“We’re embarking on a three-phase plan,” she said. “Year one, which was 2023, it was about educating judges about the problem and getting access to resources from our case management office, free of charge, to local courts to help them analyze why they have overage cases.”

The second phase of the plan involves surveying local courts to get firsthand input as to the reason for these backlogs, Kennedy said, noting that more than 500 judges statewide have participated so far. The third phase will involve implementing suggestions made throughout the previous phases to help improve case flow, which Kennedy said has already shown signs of improvement.

“If you compare the third quarter of 2023 to the third quarter of 2022, overage civil cases dropped by 31 percent, and if you look at the third quarter of 2023 to the third quarter of 2021, we have seen a reduction of 46 percent of overage cases,” she said. “We can see the same thing happening with criminal cases. When you look at that same time period, the backlog declined by 27 percent when you’re looking from 2023 to 2022.”

According to Ohio Supreme Court data, the Allen County Common Pleas Court saw an average monthly overage of 26.9 percent in 2023 in criminal cases and 7.2 percent in civil cases, compared to state averages of 23 percent and 5.2 percent, respectively. The 2023 Auglaize County average monthly overage rate was 4.3 percent for criminal cases and 3.3 percent for civil cases, while those same rates in Putnam County were 3.8 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively.

When it comes to keeping the formerly incarcerated out of prison in the future, Kennedy said that a task force she formed in 2023 on this subject completed its final meetings in May and will present its findings this month. Kennedy is hoping to see a holistic approach to this issue, looking at not only what the court system can do within the bounds of current state law, but also how other partners can assist in helping those released reclaim their lives.

“We’re looking at re-entry courts, a specialized docket where judges are saying, ‘We are going to put you in prison, but the statute allows me to bring you back for a re-entry docket.’ We’re growing that now, and Ohio has nine,” she said. “What can we do to help those find housing they’ve lost? All of a sudden you‘ve lost your counseling sessions if you’re in mental health treatment or substance abuse. How can we make sure they have those next meeting dates?”

Kennedy also lauded efforts in the private sector to help those being released, citing Lima Pallet Company president Tracie Sanchez and the company’s work to set up a satellite manufacturing facility inside Allen Oakwood Correctional Institution.

“It gives job training and job experience, so there’s that pathway,” she said.