An attorney in Cherokee County has taken over prosecuting juvenile cases in Labette County.

JoAnna Derfelt has been a defense attorney and prosecutor for a number of years. She has accepted felony case appointments in the 11th Judicial District, including Labette County, as part of her practice, but she began withdrawing from these cases in late spring and early summer, limiting further the pool of attorneys available for contract work in Labette County and other Southeast Kansas jurisdictions.

Labette County Attorney Stephen Jones hired Derfelt to handle the weekly juvenile case docket, which includes juvenile care cases that can range from neglect to truancy and beyond. Derfelt is prosecuting these juvenile cases in at least two other counties as well. Juvenile cases are heard on Tuesdays.

Derfelt is being paid $2,000 a month in Labette County for this work, which began this month. After January, the contract will run month to month as the county attorney reevaluates the change.

Jones wrote an email to county commissioners explaining his reasoning in making the change. 

Brian Johnson in his role as county counselor handles civil cases for the county and juvenile cases are considered civil actions, Jones wrote. Johnson told Jones that he would handle the cases, but it would be more expensive to the county than the contract offered by Derfelt, Jones wrote.

“With the amount of time required for these cases weekly, I feel that would be a much better and financially prudent direction than turning these cases over to (Johnson),” Jones wrote. 

The number of pending high-level adult criminal cases is a reason for seeking the change, Jones wrote. Labette County has about 15 off-grid or level one felony cases pending, plus two off-grid cases prosecuted by the Kansas Attorney General’s Office. An off-grid crime can be punished with life in prison upon conviction. 

“In talking with other county attorneys, this is an abnormally large number for a county of our size,” Jones wrote, especially for an office with only two attorneys. Labette County has a split court system, so Jones handles cases in Parsons and Deputy County Attorney Mandy Johnson handles cases in Oswego. “Each one of these cases requires a great deal of time. My office must devote significant time to meeting with the victims and victims’ families, research and responding to motions that have been filed by the defendant, and coordination with law enforcement agencies regarding follow up, just to name a few. This investment of time is necessary to both maintain the rights of the defendant and protect the rights of the victims and society.

“Given the caseload for Labette County, many of these essential functions in all my cases were beginning to suffer,” Jones wrote.

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