Two or three times a month, dozens of people from around Charleston County pack inside a courtroom at 100 Broad St. in downtown Charleston.

They are questioned for hours and vetted until a group is chosen to decide the future of the man or woman whose freedom is at stake that particular week.

Last week , nine cases were listed for trial - among them a bank fraud, cocaine possession, and a murder - but there was only one judge to hear them.

So the murder trial went forward and the eight other cases would have to wait. That means some defendants will sit in jail longer and victims and their families have to wait longer for justice.

It's the nature of the system in much of South Carolina, but one on the brink of change, according to some of the state's judicial leaders.

Last month, South Carolina's Supreme Court justices issued an order to judges, prosecutors and court clerks that essentially told them to find out how many of their cases were more than a year and a half old, then start figuring out how to lessen that load.

Circuit Judge Roger Young was recently appointed as the chief administrative judge for the 9th Circuit, which covers Charleston and Berkeley counties. He took the task to heart and decided to take a proactive approach.

"Rather than just coming in and start screaming, yelling 'do better' and banging heads, I wanted to study the problem a little bit," Young said.

In January, Young conducted a "cattle call" with prosecutors and defense attorneys to go through cases and identify the ones that were older than 18 months.

Before the status conference, the solicitor's office identified 967 criminal cases older than 18 months.

"What happened, though, was good. It made all those cases get looked at by an assistant solicitor and defense attorney. In many cases, just the act of them talking helped resolve the case."

Prosecutors are not ignoring cases, according to 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, but assistant solicitors and assistant public defenders come and go and the cases can get passed along. In other instances, prosecutors and attorneys are waiting for DNA results from the State Law Enforcement Division, and pending murder trials often take precedence on the scheduling list of trials, Wilson said.

"That's been one of the beasts solicitors have had for a while," she said.

Wilson called Young's approach a refreshing one, which she has welcomed.

"He's rolling his sleeves up, getting in there and seeing what the hold up is," she said.

Young is hopeful this approach will help streamline the system's efficiency.

"Imagine the system as a funnel, this big, huge, 50-gallon barrel of defendants," Young said. "We have to funnel them through every single week. That funnel is just so big right now. We need to get more funnels or figure out different solutions."

A call to arms

In 2010, South Carolina had the fewest judges for its population and more than twice the national average of filings per judge, according to a joint study conducted by three state and national judicial organizations.

The state had one judge per 100,000 people with 5,060 cases per judge, according to the study, ranking South Carolina 50th among states' caseload per judge data. Massachusetts was ranked highest with also about 1 judge per 100,000 people, but with 379 cases per judge, 13 times as many cases.

With these kind of numbers, Palmetto State judges have to help each other for the system to improve, according to Young.

So he has sounded a call to arms. For example, if a judge is scheduled to preside over civil court for a certain week and finishes those cases early, Young is asking that they preside over criminal cases the remainder of that week. "He's keeping the pressure on the front end. I think we are going to see results," Wilson said.

Young likes the feedback he's seeing. Last week when Circuit Judge Kristi Harrington's civil court case in Berkeley County ended early, she volunteered to preside over criminal cases, Young said.

"My colleagues are supportive of the idea," he said. "Everyone's doing their part."

Young has made other interim changes, such as rolling over cases to following weeks. If a case is not reached in a certain term of court, the case may now be called the following week, if a civil court judge becomes available. Previously, the case would roll over to the next scheduled term of court. "It doesn't cost an extra dime, and allows us to nibble away a case or two every week while we decide what long-term changes to recommend.

Young credits judges, Wilson and the district's chief public defender, Ashley Pennington, for embracing these efforts.

"I'm very enthusiastic we can work collaboratively and find solutions to make the system work more efficiently, while still providing justice," Pennington said.

As of March 10, about 267 cases of those older cases had been resolved, a 27 percent reduction, according to Wilson.

Despite the progress, Wilson and Pennington agree, they'll eventually hit a plateau.

"We're shaving off some things that need to be shaved, but the question is going to be, how far can you get before it's just going to be the status quo?" Wilson said.

Pennington agrees they'll see a decline in the number of old cases "but it's not going to be suddenly a whole new world."

Stuck in the past?

The solution lies in modernizing the state's legal system to dedicate judges to certain counties and cases, as opposed to traveling the circuit, according to Pennington.

"That's the investment other states have chosen to make all around the U.S.," he said.

In the 1800s, judges "rode the circuit," by horse, traveling from town to town to preside over cases. The solicitors would set the docket and judges would preside over what the solicitor called for trial, then move on to the next town, according to Young.

Nowadays, judges in South Carolina are still "riding the circuit," with solicitors still setting those dockets.

"Obviously South Carolina grew, but the courts were slow to change," Young said.

That started to change in 2012 when South Carolina's Supreme Court issued an order that would shift the power of the docket scheduling from solicitors to judges, which garnered criticism from around the state.

"There were many reasons, but its biggest fault was probably that it was 'one size fits all,'" Young said. "46 counties means 46 different ways of doing things, and it was probably doomed from the start."

So after a few months, the high court pulled back and on Jan. 7, tried again, this time creating a committee to study the issue as well as ordering solicitors and clerks to start compiling old caseload data. It's all in hopes of coming up with a solution to attack the backlog of stale cases, Young said.

What's next?

Young has scheduled another conference for next month when prosecutors and defense attorneys will, once again, present the status of their older cases.

Young believes these conferences can go a long way toward improving efficiency in getting cases through the system. "That has a tremendous value to it. No one wants to stand in front of their boss and say why their case is so old."

But Young also knows it's not the end-all, be-all solution.

"Once we have done that, then I can make a recommendation to the chief justice, like bringing in judges from other parts of the state or extra terms of court," Young said. "I want to be sure I've done everything I can do with the resources I already have to squeeze the max efficiency from these people."

Young estimates that by mid-May, he'll be ready to present his findings to the state's Supreme Court, along with requests for additional resources.

His ultimate goal is to end up with a system that's as efficient as possible.

"This isn't making planes at the Boeing plant. It's court, which means it's government. I'm realistic and know there will always be a 'backlog' of cases," Young said. "However, I'd like to make sure that however we define a backlogged case, that number we end up with in the Ninth Circuit represents the best we can do."

Reach Natalie Caula Hauff at 937-5594 or