We talk about maintaining law and order. And the first thought is usually the officer’s flashing lights and gun at his hip.
It’s not the gavel.
But the court system is where we expect lawbreakers to answer for what they’ve done. It is as much a part of law and order as the patrol car and handcuffs.
Law officers most everywhere talk about the increased burden on their staffs as the economy has gone downhill and calls have increased. When times get bad economically, more people are going to cheat and steal. More people will get angry and hit their loved ones. More people get sad and frustrated and try to escape reality through drug use.
So, more people get arrested. And the cases pile up in court. As of Friday, there were 803 pending cases in Madison County Superior Court, according to District Attorney Bob Lavender, who serves as the lead prosecutor in Madison, Oglethorpe, Elbert, Hart and Franklin counties, which comprise the Northern Judicial Circuit. Lavender has an assistant DA to help in each of the five counties.
If all 803 cases went to trial, the county court system would come to a standstill. Seating a jury is a time-consuming process, not to mention the actual trial itself.
“If we are lucky, we can get three cases tried in a week,” said Lavender.
If the county could try three people a week for 52 weeks a year starting in January, then it could get through the current caseload in 2015. But the three Superior Court judges have to cover five counties. And they also hear civil cases, not just criminal matters. In the first six months of 2010, the three judges will hold a total of three trial weeks in Madison County between them. They must bounce among counties handling civil motions, child support hearings, etc. So you’re looking at about six trial weeks a year, with perhaps three trials a week. That would be about 18 trials a year. Eight hundred and three divided by 18 is just over 44. By that rough calculation, if every case went to trial, then you’d get done with the current caseload in 2054.
Naturally, we are truly irritated to see people get probation when we feel they deserve jail. But jail time is not accepted without a fight.
So justice often comes down to a leverage match between prosecution and defense. What are both sides willing to gamble in time and expense? Is the defendant ready to risk harsher punishment by forcing a trial, or will he settle for lesser punishment through a plea? How much punishment is a prosecutor willing to forgo in order to keep the matter out of court?
A prosecution team with a small caseload has a structural advantage over most defendants. They can spend considerable time preparing for each case. They can refuse many more plea agreements. Lavender said national prosecutorial experts say a single prosecutor shouldn’t handle any more than 150-200 cases.
But prosecutors with too great a caseload face an upstream battle. Madison County’s 803 pending cases are certainly a structural disadvantage for prosecutors. The huge caseload puts prosecutors, public defenders and judges into a constant game of catch-up. The overall health of the system suffers under the weight. Defendants have to wait too long for their day in court. Prosecutors have to plea down cases when they might not have otherwise if they had more time and resources.
There has been some talk of setting up a state court in Madison County, like in some surrounding counties, to help deal with some less serious offenses. That would require approval by the state legislature. Lavender said he’d be in favor of such a court to help draw down the backlog.
Of course, more court resources means more money. And establishing a new court with a new judge and staff probably isn’t feasible during the current financial crunch. Meanwhile, funds for courts aren’t exactly flowing from the state either. Public defenders’ offices statewide have faced dramatic decreases. And prosecutors feel the pinch, too. Lavender said his staff will face one furlough day a month in 2010.
So what would it take to run a state court?
Well, according to the Jackson County finance office, the state court budget in Jackson County for 2009 is $221,405. Madison County doesn’t have that kind of money to spend next year.
However, BOC chairman Anthony Dove said that early in 2010 he may propose having a retired judge come in periodically to hold special court sessions in hopes of clearing some of the old cases off the books. That’s not an end-all measure. It won’t resolve the problem entirely, but it would be a good mitigating measure.
Ultimately, the county should look at establishing a state court down the road. People aren’t going to quit doing their dirty deeds. So, the caseload will always grow. And the investment in a state court would be a good long-term measure to improve this county’s court structure.
Law and order isn’t maintained without the right resources — both on the streets and in the courts.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.