A D.C. Superior Court program designed to trim the court's backlog of misdemeanor cases has reduced the number of cases to be heard but has severely depleted funds used to pay jurors and witnesses.
Judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors generally praised and program, which has reduced the court's misdemeanor caseload from 4,200 in January to 2,100 this month.
Some critics contend that thousands of dollars in witness fees have been wasted because each judge maintains a daily trial schedule of up to 25 cases -- requiring the presence of, and payments to, witnesses -- when only one or two cases actually go to trial each day.
Government and defense witnesses are paid a fee of $30 a day. In rescheduled trials, witnesses must return to court on another day and presumably collect an additional fee, the critics say.
Recently the court instituted a policy of paying a partial fee of $15 to witnesses who attend court for fewer than four hours a day.
Last Friday, the court, which had an $860,000 allocation to pay witnesses during this fiscal year, ran out of witness funds. Witnesses are now being paid out of $250,000 left of the $1.6 million that had been earmarked for jurors.
"We actually have two problems," said court administrator Larry Polansky. "First, the amount of money provided for witnesses and jurors this year was less than was provided and spent the previous year.
"Second, because of the misdemeanor program we have had more jury trials in the first five months of 1980 than in all of last year."
He noted that 478 cases were tried in all of 1979. Already this year, 498 trials have been held, he said.
"In order to ensure that a significant number of cases are tried, each judge is assigned a large number of cases and some of them must be continued," Polansky said.
"We believe the results of the misdemeanor program speak for themselves and we think that the high number of dispositions we are getting make the plan cost effective."
Defense attorney Herbert S. Miller said he appeared before Judge Robert M. Scott last Thursday prepared to got to trial in a drug possession case. Miller said that late in the day he learned that the case would be continued to July 15. His three witnesses were paid $30 fees and instructed to return to court next month.
Miller's case was one of 11 on Judge Scott's trial calendar for the day. The judge went to trial in one of those cases after completing a trial from the previous day. Seven of the cases were rescheduled, two were dismissed and one defendant pleaded guilty.
"Ordinarily, you don't have such a large number of cases set before one judge," Owens said. "But this is a very critical period during which we are trying to reduce the court's backlog. And we are having success."
Judge Tim Murphy, chief of the criminal trial section, said the six judges currently assigned to hear only misdemeanor cases will be joined in July by four other judges.
Polansky, who said that funds to pay both jurors and witnesses are expected to run out by July 15, said the court currently spends between $4,000 and $6,000 a day in witness fees. He said an average of another $3,600 a day is disbursed to jurors.
"Sometimes it's extremely difficult to get witnesses to return to court after they have gone through a couple of continuances," Miller said. "Besides that, a lot of witnesses lose money when they take time off from their jobs to come to court."
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Owens, chief of the misdemeanor trial section, said that his office is willing to "live with" the problem.