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ND court system studying how to reduce delays in criminal case processing

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North Dakota’s Court System has received a nearly $1 million grant from the federal Justice Department for a 3 year project to reduce delays in criminal case processing.

North Dakota was the only state to be selected for this. The project includes four of the judicial districts – Northeast, Northeast Central, East Central and Southeast Central.

"We do okay, but we're not 100%," said State Court Administrator Sally Holewa. "Nobody is. And we can always improve."

The study will try to identify why cases aren’t resolved in a timely fashion, and the effect that has on people.

"We're particularly looking at geography, and the lack of services available in rural areas, and also looking at particular characteristics of defendants, such as racial minority or mental health issues being present," Holewa said.

Holewa said at the end of the three years, what is learned will be shared with other rural states, to see if they can improve their processes, too. She said in North Dakota, the goal is to have those cases completely processed within one year. Holewa said while most criminal cases meet that deadline, some do not.

"It may be because they (criminal defendants) are being referred for an evaluation, and there's no one available to do it," Holewa said. "It might be there's a stay because of mental health issues."

Holewa said it could be a number of things accumulating in that case.

"It could be something as simple as a vacancy in the state's attorney's office, or an attorney who's ill, and no other attorneys can pick up the case," Holewa said. "All of those things can be factors when cases get old."

Holewa said in these instances, size matters.

"If you have a three-person office, and one person's out, everybody else has to divide up the work," Holewa said. "If you have a 10-person office, and one's out, you have nine people who can divide the work."

Holewa said in North Dakota's rural counties, most have basically one judge who comes through to do these cases.

"If the judge gets ill, there's delay," Holewa said.

The National Center for State Courts will be the primary consultant and research arm for the project.