Superior Court resolving criminal cases sooner

Compared with more than a decade ago, the movement of criminal cases through Richmond County Superior Court has increased dramatically.

 

Since The Augusta Chronicle began annual tracking in 1996 of what happens to criminal cases that enter the court system each year, the average time between indictment and disposition has shrunk from 494 days to 115 days last year.

Some cases still linger unresolved for months, even years, but far fewer cases have fallen into a legal black hole since the Superior Court judges were forced into case assignment by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2005.

Last year, 3,031 Superior Court cases were open. By the end of the year, 531 cases indicted during the first eight months of the year or carried over from 2008 were still pending. The Chronicle subtracted cases indicted in the last four months of the year because American Bar Association standards concern cases older than four months.

But by the same ABA standards, the pace of adjudication is still too slow. In Richmond County, 82.5 percent of criminal cases were closed last year. The ABA recommends courts close 90 percent of criminal cases within four months and all within a year.

The Superior Court is closer to that goal than at any point since 1996, when The Chronicle found it had the highest backlog of criminal cases in Georgia. In the past, the best efforts still left a backlog of more than 25 percent of all cases for the following year.

Until mid-2005, the Augusta Judicial Circuit courts operated under a trial calendar-based system. The chief judge assigned the judges to preside over calendars and handle whatever cases appear on the calendars.

When the Supreme Court insisted the Augusta judges follow the same rules as courts in the rest of the state, the local judges had to adopt case assignment. Since then, each case is assigned to a specific judge on a random basis. Each judge is responsible for moving his assigned cases through the system.

In 2009, Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet started the year with fewer cases because he closed a greater portion of his cases the year before. Over the year, Overstreet had 554 criminal defendants assigned to him. Judge Carl C. Brown Jr. had the largest number of criminal defendants in the year, 664.

District Attorney Ashley Wright was impressed with the number of cases closed in 2009. In an e-mail, she wrote, "A great many cases are easily addressed in a rapid manner. ... However, some cases are the products of intricacies and complicated factual situations and cannot be disposed of in a similar manner. These cases take more time to develop and prosecute successfully. In order to do justice, the cases cannot be rushed to disposal or placed under a forced timeline."

Of the 1,056 known jailed defendants last year, 18.7 percent remained incarcerated, with their cases still unresolved by the end of the year. The number of people in jail awaiting trial figures into the overcrowding of the jail and the cost to taxpayers. Each day a person spends in jail costs about $50.

Twenty-eight jailed defendants have cases unresolved for more than a year. Three of the defendants in pretrial detention the longest, more than two years, all face murder charges.

As in past years, the largest number of defendants were charged with drug crimes. The second-largest number of defendants were accused of property crimes. Those accused of violent crimes remained relatively constant from earlier years. Last year, 861 defendants faced charges of violent crimes that ranged from murder to terroristic threats.

Of the defendants who were convicted, those most likely to receive a prison term, 55 percent, were convicted of violent crimes. In all, 451 defendants sentenced in Richmond County Superior Court last year received some time in prison. Thirteen people were sentenced to life in prison.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

SEE THE DETAILED NUMBERS

Click here to view a PDF of the numbers for individual Richmond County Superior Court judges.

TRACKING THE CRIMINAL COURT CASE NUMBERS

A computer-assisted examination of the criminal cases tracked in Richmond County Superior Court in 2009, without those indicted in the final four months of the year:

DRUG CASES MADE UP LARGEST CATEGORY

Of the defendants convicted and sentenced in 2009:

CRIMENo. sentencedPrisonProbation
Drugs608131477
Property570128442
Violent247139108
Other481632
Weapon33231
Driving20713
Escape1459
Misdemeanors*317----

* No misdemeanor convictions resulted in prison terms, but not all resulted in probation sentences either; some were sentenced as "time served."

Source: Richmond County Superior Court Clerk records

OUTCOMES

Guilty pleas1,832
Pending531
Bench warrants issued310
Dismissed181
Inactive 81
Drug Court43
Trial conviction25
Trial acquittal10
Mental commitment13
Sent juvenile court4
Not guilty by reason insanity1
Total defendants3,031