Originally created 01/29/97

Richmond County courts among the most clogged



The number of criminal and civil cases backlogged in Richmond County Superior Court is one of the highest in Georgia.

The just-released statistical information underscores a recent Richmond County grand jury's concerns and recommendation for further investigation in a backlog of more than 2,400 criminal cases in Richmond County Superior Court.

Also, according to 1995 caseload information collected by the Judicial Council of Georgia, the Augusta Judicial Circuit had one of the largest numbers of open criminal and civil cases per judge, and the highest number of open cases if compared to the number of new cases filed in 1995.

"It doesn't surprise me," said Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Danny Craig.

The Gwinnett Judicial Circuit had nearly the same total number of criminal and civil cases filed in 1995 as the Augusta Judicial Circuit but ended the year with less than half the number of open cases.

In the Gwinnett Judicial Circuit, comprised solely of Gwinnett County, 2,980 criminal cases were filed in 1995 - only 219 fewer than in the Augusta Judicial Circuit, which is composed of Richmond, Burke and Columbia counties. Gwinnett Judicial Circuit District Attorney Danny Porter estimated 834 criminal cases were pending.

In Richmond County Superior Court, the number of pending cases varies depending on whose figures are used. On Tuesday, Mr. Craig said a new list of cases composed by the county's data-processing center listed 2,701 pending cases, but that figure is wrong, he said. A rough estimate of 1,500 to 1,560 is probably closer to the truth, he said.

For example, the data processing information inaccurately lists more than a dozen cases as pending dismissal that are actually set for trial next week, Mr. Craig said. His staff has been pulling every file on each open case in Richmond County Superior Court to determine the real status of each case, he said.

"This is time that should not have been spent in light of all the money taxpayers have put into the data processing department in this county. This office is way too busy to be doing this work," Mr. Craig said.

The controversy surrounding Richmond County Superior Court came to a head earlier this month when a grand jury recommended further investigation of the court's scheduling of new cases and an estimated 2,400 old criminal cases. Slow movement of cases through the courts has been cited as a cause of jail overcrowding, the subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit against Richmond County.

On Friday, Chief Judge William M. Fleming Jr. said the computer-generated information he received from the county's data-processing center only showed 540 criminal cases awaiting trial in Richmond County Superior Court.

One difference in Richmond County, compared to other similar-size counties, is who prepares the trial calendars. Here, a court clerk working for the judges does the job, while in other counties the district attorney's office is responsible for preparing trial calenders based on the time each judge sets aside for criminal matters each month.

The Augusta Judicial Circuit logged a comparable number of new criminal and civil cases in 1995 to Gwinnett, Rome and Cobb judicial circuits, but those had far fewer open cases by the end of the year.

In the Gwinnett Judicial Circuit, six judges take turns handling criminal matters, setting aside one to two weeks each month for criminal cases, Mr. Porter said. At least six courtrooms are available, compared to just two in Richmond County Superior Court.

In the Cobb Judicial Circuit, eight judges have 13 courtrooms available, said Superior Court Clerk Jay Stephenson.

"We've even held court in a jury deliberation room before," he said.

The Cobb clerk's office has been computerized since 1976, Mr. Stephenson said. The prosecutor and judges are tied into the clerk's computer system, which can provide information on every case, Mr. Stephenson said.

"These are tools that you can use to keep cases moving," he said.