Before they move into the new courthouse in February, those responsible for Richmond County State Court intend to make some major changes.
Chief Judge Richard Slaby said it's still a work in progress, but some things are definite: a traffic violation bureau for those with minor traffic citations, which means no probation or danger of going to jail, and case assignment, which means organization and accountability.
State Court is where thousands of traffic and other misdemeanor cases are handled. The court also deals with civil lawsuits that can range from debt collections to complex malpractice cases.
Traffic offenses, the least serious cases, are what has been most time-consuming for the court. Georgia is the only state that deems such offenses criminal, punishable by 12 months in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.
"In my mind, they shouldn't be misdemeanors," Slaby said of minor traffic violations.
People with minor citations will be able to decide to pay fines through the traffic violation bureau, saving them potentially hours in a crowded courtroom and the prospect of probation -- with additional monthly fees -- for those who cannot pay a fine in full.
Currently, every person issued a citation is given a court date. The clerk's office has an online payment option for most traffic citations, but it requires the money in full.
Richmond County State Court had the third-highest number of backlogged cases in 2008, according to the most recent figures submitted to the Administrative Office of the Courts. The report shows the court ended the year with 26,477 cases still open.
That's a number newly appointed State Court Solicitor Charles Evans questions: "We don't even have room for that many case files."
Evans assigned three employees to go through the cases listed as open by the clerk's office. They found a large number that aren't closed because every required document wasn't enclosed in the case files yet, Evans said. They are trying to fix that.
The huge number of cases where probation violation warrants have been issued adds to the backlog, Evans said, but his office isn't involved in those cases.
Slaby signed an order last month that dismissed about 2,000 probation violation warrants. The court's private probation service, Sentinel Offender Services, is also at work to pull its old violation warrants off the grid, Slaby said.
Those issued for cases older than 2002 -- the year when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled any person who could be jailed for a later probation violation has the right to legal counsel -- are to be dismissed.
Public Defender Sam B. Sibley Jr. said the ruling means a judge can't send a person to jail if he is brought in on a probation violation warrant unless there is proof he had an attorney when he originally pleaded guilty or made a "knowing and meaningful" waiver of right to counsel.
The problem in Richmond County was there was no adequate documentation of any waivers, Sibley said.
In November, Sentinel office manager Crystal Page estimated the office had more than 10,000 violation warrants dating back to 1998.
The probation violation cases add to the court's workload and the number of people brought there each day. It's not unusual to have 200 to 300 cases in a single day.
Slaby said the new courthouse cannot handle such large numbers, and he hopes the traffic violation bureau and case assignment will change things.
The solicitor said he hopes to reduce the number of cases on the weekly trial calendar -- which included as many as 500 in the past -- by implementing a system to cull them on the basis of trial status.
Last year, attorneys with the public defender's officer filed motions to dismiss more than 50 misdemeanor cases on the basis of denial of speedy trials. The solicitor dropped about half of the cases, and pleas were worked out for others.
Of the four remaining challenged cases, State Court Judge Gayle Hamrick dismissed three for violation of the right to a speedy trial. He ruled that the fourth defendant, Charles D. Lloyd, who was charged with driving under the influence, driving with a suspended license and speeding June 30, 2007, wasn't entitled to a dismissal.
That ruling was appealed to the Court of Appeals, which denied relief.
Lloyd's attorneys asked the Georgia Supreme Court for permission to appeal June 15. A decision is pending.
The Southern Center for Human Rights filed a brief urging the court to accept the appeal. Representatives of the center have monitored and been a critic of Richmond County State Court for more than a decade.