Originally created 01/05/03

State hopes changes will speed cases



AIKEN - After being arrested in January 2001 on a misdemeanor car-theft charge, 17-year-old Christopher Lewis of Graniteville did what 16 percent of all people released on bond do - he committed another crime.

That's what bothers Larry Gregory. He was the second victim.

Mr. Lewis grabbed Mr. Gregory's wallet from the pouch of his wheelchair as the two talked in Mr. Gregory's front yard in Graniteville on Sept. 29, 2001. Police arrested Mr. Lewis a few blocks away about an hour later.

"He had the audacity to tell the police he would sell (the wallet) back to me," Mr. Gregory said.

Free on bond again, Mr. Lewis robbed an elderly Graniteville woman at knifepoint about six months later, on March 13, as she stood on her back porch.

Nearly two years after his car-theft arrest, in October 2002, Mr. Lewis was sent to prison for 10 years. In exchange for a guilty plea to the robberies, prosecutors dropped the car-theft charge.

"If he hadn't been free on bond awaiting prosecution, that old lady might not have been robbed," Mr. Gregory said.

According to a study commissioned by state court officials in 2001, South Carolina ranks last among 10 states with similar populations in the amount of per capita spending in judicial budgets.

In fiscal year 2000, South Carolina spent $10.38 per person. Connecticut spent $92.20, the most among the 10 states.

South Carolina hopes to make the wheels of justice turn faster in the next few months by implementing a new case-management formula and technology that will help courts track the progress of criminal cases.

But the plan has some sizable obstacles to overcome.

  • Some judicial circuits have case backlogs of two years.
  • The number of pending cases in the state has nearly doubled since 1990. That year about 48,700 cases were pending statewide. In July 2002, about 73,000 cases were pending. The year before, there were about 80,000.
  • State money to prosecutors has been cut 33 percent in the past two years.
  • The outlook is bleak for more funding from the Legislature.
  • The plan isn't likely to get help "until we see the economy turn around and we have some additional money to fund it with," said state Rep. Roland Smith, R-Warrenville, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

    Jean Toal, the chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, says she still hopes that the state court system can reach its goals despite budget cuts.

    "We're all facing more cuts. But we're not giving up on this project," she said. "We're just trying to utilize everything our imaginations can dream up so we can move this thing along, because we know the backlog will just get worse and worse."

    It's a formidable challenge.

    "We probably try to do more with less than with any of our comparable states in the Southeast," Chief Justice Toal said. "We have more cases per capita by judge and by solicitor. Another way of saying that is every other state in the Southeast has far more judge assets, more solicitor assets, more public defender assets than we do."

    The funding shortages mean that technology needed to effectively implement the changes won't be available everywhere. That's the problem for Solicitor Barbara R. Morgan in Aiken.

    Ms. Morgan surprises people when she says that the Aiken County Public Defender's Office started using individual e-mail accounts only a few months ago.

    The statewide software for tracking cases is expected to be rolled out in February. Using a $3 million federal grant, the state has slowly been constructing the needed infrastructure in counties so they can start the new system.

    Ms. Morgan is hoping the statewide system will work just as well for her as it did for Greenville County, where it is being developed.

    By tracking cases, Greenville Solicitor Robert Ariail has been able to keep pressure on his prosecutors to offer plea bargains or push a case to trial by a deadline. A monthly printout tells him which prosecutors aren't keeping pace.

    Greenville handles almost four times as many cases as Aiken. It had more than 8,400 cases pending as of July 1. Aiken had more than 2,200.

    Still, Greenville cases move faster than those in Aiken. Greenville was just under the state average, 314 days, for fiscal year 2001-02, with an average of 312 days from arrest to disposition. Aiken takes 330 days, nearly two weeks longer.

    Technology makes a big difference, both prosecutors agree.

    "You've got to have computer capability to be able to manage information," Mr. Ariail said. "You can't do them by individual files anymore."

    Generally, South Carolina doesn't fare well nationally when it comes to case disposal. According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, state courts nationwide dispose of criminal cases in 214 days on average - almost 100 days faster than South Carolina.

    Aiken County prosecutors are also hurt by the fact that more populous counties get a larger share of state money.

    Some counties are also better able to absorb the state budget cuts because they get a large portion of their funding elsewhere. Mr. Ariail, for example, gets 80 percent of his money from Greenville County; Ms. Morgan's office gets 50 percent of its money from Aiken County.

    That's why Ms. Morgan said more state cuts would be "mortifying."

    Still, Ms. Morgan says she is working within her resources to implement changes where she can, including case management.

    She has been developing a system based on models in York and Richland counties that will be rolled out in January.

    York County, in the 16th Judicial Circuit, had about 1,600 cases pending at the end of the past fiscal year. People arrested go before a bond judge, who determines whether they are eligible for indigent defense and then schedules their first court appearance. About a month after that, prosecutors offer a sentencing recommendation.

    Defendants have 90 days to respond. If a defendant turns down a recommendation, the case goes to trial. That system disposes of about 85 percent of the cases in six months.

    Cases in York take an average of 174 days, according to data from the past fiscal year. In fiscal year 2000-01, the average was 158 days.

    Ms. Morgan has set a goal of disposing of 85 percent of her cases in 18 months.

    "Lack of money can't mandate lack of trying," she said. "That's what we know. I think (the goal) is within our grasp."

    Personnel shortages are also part of the problem.

    The prosecutor who oversees the county that has the slowest case-disposal rate in the state - Lancaster County - says he doesn't have enough lawyers.

    Sixth Judicial Circuit Solicitor John Justice has five prosecutors, including himself - the fewest in the state. Greenville and Pickens counties, in Mr. Ariail's circuit, have 39.

    It takes an average of 502 days to dispose of a case in Lancaster County. That came back to haunt prosecutors when a 19-year-old out on bond on a charge of fatally shooting a Lancaster County man in 2000 was re-arrested in August on armed robbery and other felony charges.

    "The whole problem is simply lack of resources. I'm operating with no more people than I had 10 years ago," Mr. Justice said.

    Despite all the problems, Chief Justice Toal doesn't believe the lack of funding will derail the needed changes.

    "Frankly I think almost the reverse is the case," she said. "The technology is all the more necessitous now that we are having cutbacks and financial problems because it is a great way to use your existing staff to get more efficiency and more bang for the buck out of your system."

    Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or matthew.boedy@augustachronicle.com.