Doing more with less. It’s how Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson has been operating as Charleston and Berkeley counties’ chief prosecutor.
Despite financial constraints and a tremendous case load, Wilson said she’s made it work. But, as the S.C. Supreme Court considers changing the way cases are managed and scheduled, Wilson worries that could change.
Currently, the Solicitor’s Office handles the scheduling of trials and cases. But recently, the Supreme Court considered the idea of handing over that responsibility solely to the county Clerk of Court’s Office.
Wilson said she believes that could be detrimental to the system. It’s not a power grab but an effort to keep things running as smoothly as possible, she said.
“It is a colossal pain. I’d love to give that up. But I have an obligation to the community and to victims to try to make this as efficient as possible with the resources we have,” she said.
Wilson wrote a letter to S.C. Chief Justice Jean Toal suggesting her district adopt a hybrid system in which judges become more involved in the docket. Wilson argues that the proposed system wouldn’t work because it lacks funding.
“I think everybody agrees, almost everybody, that an ideal situation is one in which the courts control and manage the docket,” she said. “The problem is you have to fund that, and we don’t have the funds for that.”
Wilson argues that without a significant influx of funding, it can’t work because of the current number of judges, the number of terms of court, the number of prosecutors and public defenders and the fact that judges currently rotate throughout the state.
“Day in and day out, you have to have someone present and accountable, and that’s what I’m here for,” Wilson said.
Ultimately, judges currently have the final say in the docket and scheduling of trials, Wilson said. That’s why she argues it has nothing to do with a fight for control.
There’s a system of checks and balances, she said.
Ashley Pennington, the Ninth Circuit’s chief public defender, is on board with Wilson’s plan. While Pennington and Wilson usually stand on opposing sides in a courtroom, in this case, they’re on neutral ground.
Currently, a murder case takes an average of one to two years to get to trial. Pennington said a new system of docket management wouldn’t change that, again, without a large amount of funding — which they don’t expect soon.
“To cut the time in half for a trial, that would require a massive increase of resources,” he said.
Pennington echoed Wilson’s sentiments about doing more with less. He said since Wilson took over as solicitor, he’s gotten more notice on when cases might be called to trial so that he can be better prepared.
“I’ve worked in the Charleston County criminal justice system for 25 years, and in the last five years I’ve seen an evolution for getting notice to parties improve dramatically,” he said.
Together, Wilson and Pennington work on what they call a priority docket, setting important cases on an agenda for that year.
“All we’ve done is be as efficient as we can with the resources we have,” Pennington said.
The order is currently under review by the state’s high court.
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.
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