Here’s a typical scenario in Ravalli County’s District Court: A guy is arrested, charged with a crime—burglary or theft, say—and thrown in jail. He has no money to bond himself out, and no family in the community he can turn to for help. He languishes in jail, temporarily forgotten, while the people who make the criminal justice system work turn their attention to more pressing matters.
Six months go by and the defendant hasn’t pressed his constitutional right to a speedy trial. He has a bed and three meals a day, luxuries he may have been doing without until he became a guest of the county. He is, as one career criminal recently put it to District Judge Jeff Langton, “pretty content” right where he is.
Eventually, though, the overburdened prosecutors, public defenders and judge get around to him. Prosecutor and defense attorney confer, check their notes and concur: Their man has been in the county jail six months awaiting trial. Agreement is reached on a six-month sentence, with credit for time served. He is then freed, having served his time before being sentenced.
When asked whether this scenario is accurate, Judge Langton agrees. How often does it happen in Ravalli County’s one-judge district court? “Frequently,” he says.
Justice delayed is one reason Langton has asked Ravalli County’s legislative delegation and board of county commissioners to support him in his request to the 2001 Montana Legislature for a second district judge.
Langton has the numbers to back up his contention that a second judge is warranted: With 1,119 criminal and civil cases filed in 1999, Langton’s is the third-busiest district in the state after Billings, where the 1999 caseload was 1,218 per judge, and Helena, at 1,312 cases per judge.
While Ravalli County’s population grew by 43 percent in the 1990s, the district court caseload grew by 53 percent. And he anticipates that when the 2000 stats are compiled he will come out on top as the single busiest judge in Montana.
He’s not at the breaking point yet, however. “I try not to snap,” he laughs. But, he adds, a large and growing caseload “gums up and slows down the system. It means I have less time for cases every year. You farm more things out to law clerks, and in some cases it means they [prosecutors and defenders] have got to start cutting deals right and left. We can go along for a while, but my concern is we’re going to reach the outer limits.”
Though he has the support of three Ravalli County legislators and the local bar association, his proposal won’t carry weight with the Legislature without the support of the county commissioners. He anticipates their endorsement but acknowledges that it will come at an annual cost of about $75,000 to taxpayers, who will pay the bill for his support staff. His salary is paid by the state.
“It’s all going to come down to money,” he says.