Hays Chief of Police Don Scheibler on Monday evening said murder cases in Ellis County are going unprosecuted, which is why he supports adding another lawyer to the Ellis County Attorney’s Office.
“I do have some concerns about the backlog in that office,” Scheibler told the Ellis County Commission at its regular meeting on Monday evening in the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main.
Scheibler was one of several law enforcement agents speaking up to support a request by Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees for $35,423 to bump a part-time attorney position to full-time.
“We have homicide cases that have not been prosecuted yet,” Scheibler said. “Those are high priority cases that we need to address. And if he tells me he needs an additional prosecutor to do that, I’d encourage you to do those things.”
Former Assistant County Attorney Chris Lyon was working part-time in the office until he left in November. Now there are only four attorneys in the office.
“I really can’t give you any testimony on how many attorneys Tom needs to run his office,” Scheibler said. “But he’s been running that office since 1997, so if he tells me he needs five I have to assume he needs five.”
Drees' request Monday met with questions from the County Commission about whether a fifth full-time prosecutor is needed in the face of the county's tight money situation.
They agreed to review the request for a week, and so tabled the decision until March 4.
Prior to 2017, the post was a full-time one, Drees told the County Commissioners. Five would help the office get caught up.
“At five full-time prosecutors, we can pretty much maintain what’s coming in,” Drees said. “It doesn’t take care of any backlog of cases, and we have a backlog.”
Sheriff Ed Harbin told the Commissioners he supports a fifth attorney, because the problem is costing taxpayers money by adding costs at the jail.
“If we can’t get cases filed in a timely manner and people stay in jail a lot longer, and then we have those people in jail and we get new people in jail with new charges, the taxpayer has to pay that,” Harbin said. “We also have issues that unfortunately due to the caseload, cases have not been filed. People who should be in prison are still on the streets committing crimes.”
County Commissioner Dustin Roths indicated some reluctance to increase the budgeted amount for 2019, but said “most definitely I think I’d be open to this when we talk about next year.”
Roths said he was thinking about the county’s five-year financial forecast, which signals an impending deficit.
“It doesn’t look very good and we’re going to have to make some tough decisions,” Roths said. “So that’s where I just want to know the taxpayer’s money is being spent well. I also want to know that you’re well staffed.”
Ellis County Undersheriff Scott Braun, who leads the Drug Enforcement Unit, told the Commissioners that sometimes drug arrests go unprosecuted.
The unit makes many arrests, sending people to jail before seeing a judge, Braun said. If the County Attorney’s office can’t get them processed quickly, jail time increases.
“We in the past have had cases not prosecuted that were very good, but because of Tom’s limited staff, he has to pick and choose which ones,” Braun said. “We spend many, many hours investigating these cases and every one is important to us.”
A 15-year-veteran of the office, Assistant County Attorney Charlene Brubaker said the staff does what it can to pick up the slack. Her job covers child in need of care cases, as well as those related to the mentally ill, and drug and alcohol abuse.
“You can’t just look at kids who have been removed from home or who are in an unsafe home and say ‘Sorry, I don’t have the hours to put in and take care of you, so you can continue to get abused and neglected but that’s how it is.’ That can’t and won’t happen in our office,” she said.
Brubaker said the county attorneys are part of the law enforcement equation that the County Commission already funds.
“They can make all the arrests in the world, but if we don’t have anybody there to prosecute those cases, then what good did it do you to fund the Drug Court?" Brubaker said. "What good did it do you to fund Community Corrections, or to provide things for the Sheriff’s Office, if we can’t get the prosecutions in.”
John Trembley, director of Northwest Kansas Community Corrections Inc. said “I certainly understand Mr. Drees’ request.”
Trembley’s agency covers 17 counties in northwest Kansas, but 50 percent of the people in the program are from Ellis County, Trembley said.
“I have 35 people on bond awaiting sentencing in Ellis County,” he said, adding that about 75 percent of the people in their agency’s domestic violence program in the Hays Office are Ellis County people.
“About a month ago there was two people released off bond with me, just because they had not had the time to file the charges, that’s a reality of it,” Trembley said. “I just don’t see our community corrections numbers out of Ellis County going down.”
Assistant County Attorney Brenda Basgall said the shortage of attorneys means she can’t get to some of her cases as quickly. She handles domestic abuse cases, as well as juvenile offenders, forgeries, thefts and criminal damage to property,
“Sadly I don’t get to those nonperson crimes as quickly as I probably should, because I’m addressing crimes by juvenile offenders,” Basgall said. “As we all know with children, we need to deal with it when it happens.”
Waiting means they might commit more crimes, she said.
Assistant County Attorney David Aschwege argued as well for money for a fifth attorney.
“At this point with four attorneys we really are in triage mode,” Aschwege said. “The fact is there are more police reports that come in than the four of us can plausibly read in a day. A fifth isn’t going to magically solve that. But I think it puts us in a much better position to do our primary purpose, which is to look out for the citizens of Ellis County. Again, law enforcement can make all the arrests that they want to but at the end of the day without the prosecutors there to take it to the finish line, the cases are just sitting there.”