86TH DISTRICT COURT

86th District Court inside the Robert P. Griffin Hall of Justice in Traverse City.

TRAVERSE CITY — Several positions have been eliminated in the 86th District Court after passage of a new state law that is meant to cut down on the number of people that are placed on probation.

The new law has been in effect since April 1. Six employees were affected, including probation officers, community corrections officers and compliance officers, though none had to be laid off as they retired, took positions elsewhere with the county or found other jobs, said Carol Stocking, court administrator.

Other positions that were eliminated had been vacant, including an office specialist, a collections specialist and a compliance officer.

The Grand Traverse County Board approved cutting the positions at its regular meeting Wednesday.

Public Act 395 of 2020 allows for a person convicted of a non-serious misdemeanor to be sentenced with a fine, community service, or some other non-jail, non-probationary sanction. It is part of a package of bills that also reduces the length of probation for certain charges and allows for early discharge.

Crimes that are affected include first offense drunken driving, trespassing, drunk and disorderly and retail fraud.

“Many of those cases that would have traditionally been on probation for a six-month or one-year time period are no longer getting probation, so the probation caseload, we were able to forecast that that was going to be highly diminished,” Stocking said.

The reform came about as a result of the Michigan Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration study that looked at the state’s criminal justice system and ways to reduce populations in crowded jails that are underfunded and understaffed.

Probation and parole violations are among the top 10 offenses admitted to jail, the study found.

District court has kept 4.8 full-time equivalent probation officers, with 2.8 officers working in specialty courts such as drug and sobriety courts, and two full-time officers for traditional cases.

The two officers that have the traditional cases have very high caseloads at this time, with each carrying about 275 cases, Stocking said. A normal caseload is up to 200, she said.

Some of those cases may be transferred over to specialty courts, she said. Many are also expected to take advantage of the new laws and apply for early release from probation.

“We’re watching the numbers very closely,” Stocking said. “We believe that we’ve kept the right number of probation officers, but time will tell.”

About a month ago the court added an office manager using some of the money that will be saved with the elimination of the other positions, though even with the new position the department will realize a savings.

The board on Wednesday also approved the appointment of an on-call attorney magistrate to hear small claims cases.

The post will be filled by Gregory G. Thiess, who will work one afternoon per week at a cost of about $10,000 per year, with wages for a part-time magistrate already in the court budget, Stocking said.

Several years ago, changes in the judiciary were made that took 86th District Court from three judges to two, even though caseloads didn’t diminish, Stocking said. Judges are able to hear small claims cases, but just do not have the time, she said.

“The judges literally do not have any docket time to do small claims,” she said.

District court has had two different attorney magistrates in the past, though both have since left, Stocking said. Both Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties have magistrates, but they are not attorneys and are unable to do small claims, she said.

The court will now work with Conflict Resolution Services in Traverse City to do mediation on all small claims, which is expected to resolve many cases before they are scheduled for a hearing.

In the past cases weren’t mediated because of the cost to someone filing a small claim. In addition to a filing fee and a service fee, the claimant would have to pay mediation costs of about $65, Stocking said.

During the COVID pandemic the state created the MI-Resolve program that is free to anyone filing a small claim.

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