Originally created 11/18/96

Officials making progress, but jail still overcrowded



Augusta Judicial Court officials took the federal judge's mandate to get criminal cases moving seriously. But last week, the jail population was nearly 37 percent over capacity.

That's still better than in mid-October, when the population soared to 575 inmates - 69 percent over the capacity of 340 inmates.

"I think we're making some headway," said Superior Court Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr. "I think we'll be in pretty good shape in three, maybe four weeks."

A month ago, U.S. District Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. called government and court officials on the carpet, warning that jail overcrowding had reached a potentially explosive situation and they must act immediately to reduce the number of inmates being housed in the jail at the Law Enforcement Center at Fourth Street and Walton Way.

A new 556-bed jail is being built on Phinizy Road, but it isn't expected to open until the spring of 1998. Judge Bowen told officials they couldn't wait, something had to be done now. In addition to moving about 100 inmates from the jail to the Richmond County Correctional Institute, the judge ordered officials to form a Detention Council to find ways to speed the process of moving people through the court system.

Judge Fleming said that to think court officials can get the population down to capacity and keep it there without building a new jail is folly. Too many people continue to be arrested to believe the jail population would ever drop toward zero, he said.

"We were down to 405 Friday (Nov. 8) but we had that influx after the weekend," said District Attorney Danny Craig of the jail population.

With new people arrested daily, especially on weekends, the percentage of jail inmates awaiting trial increases. For example, 58 percent of the population was awaiting trial last week, compared with 55 percent a month ago.

By the end of this week, however, at least 174 jail inmates should be moving out to state prisons or home on probation. Those going to prisons should be out within 15 days, said Chief Jailer Charles Toole.

Chief Toole is seeing some difference in the overcrowded conditions. The population is slowing shrinking, but "we'll still be tight for a while," he said.

Meanwhile, he has moved 85 inmates to the Richmond County Correctional Institute and intends to move another 15 there, and he has moved 57 to the county stockade and intends to increase that number to 90 inmates, Chief Toole said.

The Superior Court judges have increased the number of days they accept guilty pleas and conduct sentencings each week, and the judges have declared an open day every Friday so people can plead guilty and get their cases over with if they want.

Following Judge Fleming's lead, Judge Albert M. Pickett cracked the whip earlier this month and all but about a quarter of the 78 people scheduled for trial saw their cases concluded. Twenty cases were postponed when attorneys announced they couldn't be ready for trial, witnesses were missing or clients didn't show up for court.

Attorney David Weber had thought a client scheduled for trial Nov. 4 didn't have much chance of getting before a jury, although he had been waiting months in jail. But he stood trial, was acquitted and headed back home, Mr. Weber said. "They really moved a lot of cases."

This week, Judge Fleming and Judge Robert Lyn Allgood both preside over Superior Court and will try as many cases as possible.

Judge Allgood was scheduled to preside over a capital murder trial for two weeks, but the cases ended in a guilty plea, freeing him to deal with 44 other cases on his calender.

The judges will continue to hold extra court days as long as necessary, Judge Fleming said. "We're going to make court available as possible. If everyone does their job we'll get it (the jail population) down," he said.