DETROIT (WWJ) – Major reforms are in the works for Detroit’s 36th District Court after a recent report found the system is $4.5 million over budget and has failed to collect over $280 million in fines.
WWJ Legal Analyst Charlie Langton caught up with Michigan Appeals Court Judge Michael Talbot, who was recently tapped to turn the court around.
“The foundational problem is that the court has been consistently operating at $4 to $5 million over budget for a number of years,” Talbot said. “You tend to overspend when nobody holds you accountable, nobody asks you about the revenue you’re generating, about whether you’re collecting anything or not — and of course, they weren’t. Nobody’s concerned.
“The proposition is that I have one month to find ways to bring us into budget, going from $36 million which they’re spending to the $31 million that is my budget, starting July 1,” he continued.
Talbot said a cost-cutting measure that will go into effect this week is the “As Needed Jury Program,” which aims to close the gap between the thousands of people summoned to jury service and a relatively small number of jury trials.
“Four-thousand five-hundred Detroiters are invited to come down and serve on juries at the 36th District Court every year. We only did, last year, 12 jury trials. So, the supply and the demand don’t even talk to each other,” he said.
Talbot said that the 36th District Court will no longer send jury summonses. Instead, jurors will be drawn as needed from Detroiters summoned for jury duty to the Wayne County Circuit Court’s Frank Murphy Hall of Justice.
Here’s how the program will work: When a judge of the 36th District Court is certain there will be a jury trial, a request will go to the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, which houses the criminal division of the Wayne County Circuit Court.
When juries have been selected for trial at the circuit court, the jury services department will notify the district court of the number of Detroit residents who are available for jury service from the circuit court pool.
The district court will then arrange for potential jurors to have transportation from Frank Murphy to the district court, or jurors can walk the short distance between the two courts. After jury selection at the 36th District Court is completed, the remaining jurors will be dismissed.
“That will save me thousands of dollars, it will lighten the burden of our fellow Detroiters and should be very efficient. It also means that four employees can be reassigned to other duties,” he said.
The program will also save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Each person who reports for jury service, even if he or she never sees the inside of a courtroom, must be paid $25 and mileage according to state law,” Talbot said in a statement issued earlier. “By ending the unnecessary summons of 4,500 citizens, we save their time and the taxpayer’s money.”
The court is also exploring other methods to reduce their budget. Talbot said 81 court employees have been given the choice of pay cuts or layoffs. Other measures include eliminating free parking for the court’s 31 judges, implementing unpaid holidays and making changes to health care programs.
“The negotiations are going on this week. We have three unions, four units, and it’s very difficult. Right now, it’s very fluid and they’re trying very hard. But I don’t know where this will end up,” Talbot said. “I hope that it works out that we can keep jobs for folks.”
This comes after, a few years ago, a top lawyer for the city of Detroit lost her job for describing the 36th District Court as “ghetto.” Kathleen Leavey said she’s not racist and explained that she was referring to a poorly managed court. “Judges don’t get on the bench until 11 o’clock. People wait in long lines. Files get lost,” she said. “It’s just badly managed.”