Originally created 01/22/06

System lessens load in court

A simple change in the legal system in the Augusta Judicial Circuit set off a surge of productivity.

Six months ago, the clerks in the circuit's three counties - Richmond, Columbia and Burke - began assigning Superior Court cases to specific judges in a random and equal basis for the first time.

"We knew this was going to be good. We just didn't know it was going to be this good," District Attorney Danny Craig said.

The criminal justice system possibly benefited the most from the change. For the very first time, the judges learned the true number of pending cases, and each became responsible for shepherding his assigned cases through the system.

The results, according to an computer-assisted analysis by The Augusta Chronicle: The number of criminal cases disposed of more than doubled when compared to the past year.

For example, in the last six months of 2005, 857 guilty pleas were taken compared to 1,062 in all of 2004.

The numbers are similar for dismissal of charges, 306 in six months compared with 349 in all of 2004.

And almost as many criminal trials were held in the last half of 2005 than were held in all of 2004 - about 23 compared with 29.

For the first time, those standing trial have had only one judge presiding over pre-trial matters instead of facing different judges at each stage of a case.

"I hope everyone will appreciate having one judge on a case from start to finish," Superior Court Judge Duncan Wheale said. His first trial involved a case with a six-inch-thick case file and rulings by five different judges.

The first he knew of the case was the morning the trial began, he said.

After Judge Wheale wrote a letter to the justices of the Georgia Supreme Court last spring, criticizing the old case management system, the state's highest court ruled the Augusta Judicial Circuit must conduct business the way other courts in the state and country do.

In the past, the chief judge had master trial calendars prepared and assigned judges to preside. The judges rotated duty months to preside over non-jury matters such as sentencing, bond, motions and arraignment hearings.

When case assignment began, the judges didn't even know how many cases were pending or for how long, Judge Wheale said. When they saw the numbers they were overwhelmed, he said. He started with 1,600 criminal and civil cases.

"It seemed impossible," Judge Wheale said. But after six months of work, "I'm beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Five of the eight Superior Court judges are assigned criminal and civil cases, and the three judges with the least seniority on the bench are assigned to domestic relations cases.

Attorney Kirk Emerson Gilliard has represented clients in all spheres of the legal system for 13 years. He sees pros and cons with the new system.

It has added to attorneys' workload because there are now two extra hearings for every case, Mr. Gilliard said. But it's good because attorneys are getting together earlier in the process to discuss possible resolutions, he said.

"What I don't like is cases going on a trial calender before discovery is complete," Mr. Gilliard said. It's impossible to accurately judge the merits of a case when the facts are unknown, he said.

There are still kinks to work out in the criminal justice side, Mr. Craig said.

For example, the average time defendants remain in jail pending trial is still more than 200 days. It's lower than that for cases in 2004, according to the Chronicle analysis, but it's still high and causing overcrowding at the jail.

For the counties, the cost of keeping defendants in jail continues to be an expense. In Richmond County it costs between $45 and $50 a day per inmate.

The costs of bringing jurors in to hear cases and summoning witnesses can be decreased under the new system, Mr. Craig said. When used correctly, there's no need to call in hundreds of jurors and witnesses at $25 a head, he said.

But Mr. Craig said he thought the length of jail time for pretrial detainees should be decreasing. However, more people could remain in jail pending trial because the judges, now individually accountable, are less likely to grant bond, Mr. Craig said.

It might also be the result of a systematic failure. There have been significant delays between indictment and arraignment in the past six months, and bond hearings have been held sporadically instead of weekly.

Overall, however, things are improving and the workload is easing up somewhat, Mr. Craig said.

There will always be a high caseload in Richmond County, but it's manageable now, he said.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

By the numbers
In Richmond County Superior Court in the last six months of 2005:

Judge Cases Pending Cleared
Carl C. Brown Jr. 632 427 32%
Neal Dickert 598 283 53%
William M. Fleming Jr. 610 348 43%
J. Carlisle Overstreet 679 312 54%
Duncan Wheale 520 262 50%

Source: Richmond County Superior Court records


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