A seemingly unimportant procedural change has made an enormous difference in how criminal cases progress through the Augusta court system.
A computer-assisted analysis by The Augusta Chronicle of Richmond County Superior Court criminal cases under case assignment reveals a clearance rate unheard of in at least a decade.
"The new case management system benefits everyone who works within the system, as well as jurors, victims and witnesses," District Attorney Danny Craig wrote in response to e-mail questions.
"As we become more comfortable with the process, we realize the tremendous efficiencies it affords."
Case assignment was ushered in last year at the insistence of the Georgia Supreme Court.
The Chronicle analysis included the 4,207 open criminal cases at the June 2005 start of case assignment and continued through the end of last month.
Until last year, the Superior Court judges operated under a master calender system, with the chief judge determining what cases would be set for trial and which judge would preside. There was no intermediate step between arraignment and trial.
Now, the clerk's office is responsible for assigning a judge to each case, and that judge is responsible for shepherding each of his assigned cases from arraignment through final disposition.
"We no longer waste the time of hundreds of witnesses who could have been at work rather than sitting in our courtrooms," Mr. Craig wrote. The same could be said of hundreds of jurors called for duty who often learned after getting to court that there were no trials to be heard.
According to several annual reviews of the processing of criminal cases in Augusta for the past decade, about 1,500 cases were disposed of yearly. Nearly 2,900 cases were closed this past year.
There are still a large number of cases pending after one year, but they are being closed more quickly than in the past. Of the pending cases, 74 percent are less than a year old.
Judge Duncan D. Wheale, whose letter to the Supreme Court preceded its mandate to change to a case management system, said he expected the drastic improvement.
The old system was unmanageable and did not hold the judges accountable, he said. That's changed, and so have the working hours of the judges, he said.
The judges are assigned cases based not just on equal division. The computer software is set up to weigh the potential complexity of cases to make distribution more even.
The difference in the number of assigned cases is confusing, but it's unlikely to be cleared up unless the judges meet to compare notes, Judge Wheale said. In 30 years, the judges have never met regularly to discuss court business, he said.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
When case assignment began in Richmond County Superior Court last year, 4,207 cases were open. In one year, 69 percent, or 2,893 cases, were closed. A decade ago, an Augusta Chronicle investigation found a 494-day average from indictment to closure. The past year, that average was 265 days. Here are judges' workloads in Richmond County criminal cases from June 2005 to June 2006.
|Total||Open||Closed||Closure rate||Bench warrant||Guilty||Not guilty||Other|
|Carl C. Brown Jr.||848||318||530||63||69||347||112||2|
|William M. Fleming Jr.||769||248||521||68||47||371||101||2|
|Bernard Mulherin Sr.||2||0||2||100||0||2||0||0|
|J. Carlisle Overstreet||908||240||668||74||64||488||115||1|