If you were involved in a criminal case in Richmond County last year, it might have seemed to last forever. But chances are the case moved quicker than it would have in past years.
Last year was the first complete year with case assignment. Every criminal case now is assigned to a specific Superior Court judge who presides over the case from indictment to conclusion.
Until mid-2005, the Augusta Judicial Circuit Superior Court judges worked off one main docket that included all cases. Judges were assigned to preside over calendars, not cases, until the Georgia Supreme Court stepped in and required case assignment in the Augusta circuit.
The old system is fine for a circuit with one or two judges and a small caseload, Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet said, but thousands of cases pass through Richmond County Superior Court. In 2006, 3,900 defendants had an open case in Richmond County.
According to The Augusta Chronicle's analysis of those cases, less than a third remained open by the end of December. Of the 1,057 cases that were still open, nearly half had been indicted in the final six months of the year.
National guidelines recommend that the majority of criminal cases should be closed within six months and all should be brought to a conclusion within a year.
In Augusta, the five Superior Court Judges with the most seniority are assigned criminal cases. In 2006, they presided over about 2,400 cases that were concluded.
In 2004, under the old system, only 1,442 cases were closed, about 60 percent of which took longer than six months.
That year, more than half the open cases had been carried over from 2003 or earlier years.
In 2006, three quarters of the cases that were concluded were closed within six months of indictment.
The average time between indictment and disposition shortened in 2006. Of the cases that were closed, the average dropped to just over 235 days. A decade ago under the old system, that average was 494 days.
Chief Judge Overstreet said he believes the judges could manage their caseloads better if they had a software case management program.
"We just have to get on into the 21st century," he said.
Now, it's difficult to know the extent of the caseload and schedule time efficiently, he said.
The judges want to reduce the time people stay in jail awaiting trial. Each inmate costs taxpayers about $45 a day.
The time has been reduced, but last year 188 people were incarcerated for more than eight months.
Keeping one person in jail for eight months costs about $10,800.
Chief Judge Overstreet said he would like to see better management of cases, more uniformity by the judges and established time limits for the steps needed as criminal cases pass from indictment through closure.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
2006 cases in Richmond County Superior Court
Of the 3,900 cases open in 2006, more than two thirds were closed, an improvement from years past. Chief Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet said a software management program for the new caseload assignment system would lead to even more improvement. Here is a disposition of the cases: