Since January 2000, more than 19,000 people faced felony charges in Richmond County. Their criminal cases often languished in the court system for months and even years at the beginning of the decade, but in recent years – with exceptions – they moved at a steady pace to final disposition.
For example, in 2000, the judges moved just over 1,700 criminal cases through Richmond County Superior Court. Last year the total was more than 3,000.
District Attorney Ashley Wright believes the case assignment system instituted in mid-2005 is the reason for the big change.
“With case assignment it’s easier to track the progress of a case,” Wright wrote in an e-mail. An individual case could get lost in a stack that includes every case in the county, but in the smaller stacks assigned to each judge, a cases rises to the top sooner and more often, she explained.
The ability to get cases taken care of sooner has also had an impact on the number of cases being dismissed. When the judges divided up the pending cases and started case assignment in 2005, more than 455 cases were dismissed or put into an inactive status. Last year less than half as many were dropped.
Getting cases moved through to final disposition is a concern from the perspective of taxpayers. After schools, the biggest bite of the annual budget goes for law enforcement, and running the county jail devours a big chunk of that budget. People facing criminal charges who cannot make bond or do not have bond set can eat up a lot of tax dollars at an estimated $45 a day per inmate.
Wright and Public Defender Kate Mason said their officers work together to cull the simpler cases that can be dealt with as early as a person’s first court appearance.
There will always be complex cases that cannot be moved into a fast lane, such as a multiple armed robbery case, but in most cases as long as a defense attorney has time to go over the discovery and no legal issues need to be challenged, it’s best to work out a disposition with the prosecutor as soon as possible, Mason said.
Local taxpayers aren’t the only pockets tapped for the criminal justice system. State taxpayers foot the bill for Georgia’s prisons, more than $1 billion annually. The governor has proposed a budget that includes funding for ways to find alternatives to incarceration, and legislators are supposed to address sentencing reform this year.
In Augusta, there is a drug court to pull addicts out of criminal court, and there is a day-reporting center that also provides an alternative to prison beds.
“We have to do something. We can’t lock up everybody,” Mason said.
Since 2000, people convicted of property and drug crimes have become more likely to serve probation sentences than prison terms. For example, in 2004, about 33 percent of the people convicted of possession of marijuana with intent to sell in Augusta were sentenced to prison terms. Last year that number was 21 percent.
“I have noticed the trend of more probated sentences before a defendant is actually sent to prison,” Wright said. “We have a few more options now … These can be good options for lower level offenders who want to change, but they also house those who want to take advantage of a good opportunity to get back to the old way of doing their business.”
Overall, of the people convicted of felony crimes in Augusta between January 2000 and December 2011 who had known previous convictions, 60.5 percent of them received prison sentences. Repeat offenders whose newest crime was a crime of violence were most likely to do time in prison, at 93 percent.
One crime that has increased tremendously over the past decade is the illegal possession of prescription drugs. In 2000, there were fewer than 20 cases in Augusta. Last year, there were more than 80. As the number of cases has increased, so has the number of people sentenced to prison.