Originally created 12/31/01

Courts enter pivotal period



GREENVILLE - The next year and a half will prove critical to the state's judicial future, as South Carolina courts struggle with case backlogs and a lack of funding, South Carolina Chief Justice Jean Toal says.

"We've got tremendous backlogs around the state, no question about it," Chief Justice Toal said. "We've got some very exciting initiatives on the technology and management side. I think you're going to see the landscape change hopefully pretty dramatically in the next year and a half."

The numbers of pending criminal cases and criminal filings in the state have declined for the first time in six years.

But the time a defendant spends waiting for the end of his case has increased. The average time from arrest to the end of the case now is about 323 days, or about 11 months, according to state records. That is almost a 19 percent increase from nearly 272 days five years ago.

The national average is roughly 217 days, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice.

At the end of the past fiscal year, there were 78,610 pending criminal cases, down from 83,881 in the 2000 fiscal year. The 6.3 percent drop in pending cases coincided with a 5.6 percent decrease in the numbers of charges brought by law enforcement agencies.

The future of the courts also will play out in the Legislature. A lack of funding could cripple the judicial system, Chief Justice Toal said.

Public defenders' offices play a crucial role in getting cases heard, and they face a serious crunch, she said. Roughly 25 percent of their budget was cut this year.

Another looming crisis is the loss of travel money for circuit judges, Chief Justice Toal said. Under the state Constitution, judges are required to travel to another circuit every six months and spend six months in a home court.

To deal with the backlog, Chief Justice Toal said prosecutors must develop new ways to tackle the docket through better case management. She points to some innovations, such as 16th Circuit prosecutor Tommy Pope's system of scheduling trials based on their category of crime.

Another problem for many of the circuits is the 5,600 backlogged drug cases in the state.

The State Law Enforcement Division has cleared 4,000 cases in the past six months, while receiving 3,200 new cases, Chief Robert Stewart said. The agency recently hired four additional lab technicians.