Deadlines to ease court backlog

Jean Toal

Grace Beahm

COLUMBIA — South Carolina Chief Justice Jean Toal said Wednesday prosecutors across the state are setting standard deadlines that will wrap up cases more quickly, reducing court backlogs and counties' costs.

In her annual State of the Judiciary speech, Toal said South Carolina judges continue to have the highest caseload nationwide, with nearly 4,400 filings per judge. In years past, she's asked the Legislature for more family and circuit court judges. She noted none have been added since 1997, despite a rising caseload she expects to only get worse during the recession.

"It is a very difficult picture," Toal said, though she added she realizes the state has no money this year.

Prosecutors, who in 15 of South Carolina's 16 circuits control the list of cases awaiting trial, are standardizing how cases are handled, including deadlines for appointing defense attorneys, gathering evidence and turning it over to the defense, and making plea offers, and they are signing agreements with Toal to honor the deadlines, she said.

Too many suspects, who are either held without bond or can't afford bond, sit in county jails awaiting trial. For those eventually found guilty, their cases often end with them sentenced only to the time they already served while awaiting trial.

"Your county screams about that. They're housed on the county's nickel until they come up for trial," Toal told legislators.

"That certainly is no way to manage a docket," she said.

Some of South Carolina's 16 circuit courts have used the case management system for years, while others made no steps in that direction until recently, she said. She expects all to use it by spring 2010.

"Our county jails are terribly overcrowded," said Kathy Williams, assistant director for the state Association of Counties. Roughly three-fourths of inmates in county jails are awaiting trial, while others are there for short-term or family court sentences or because the state has not yet transferred convicted inmates to prisons.

Sumter County Administrator William Noonan said his county has two suspects who have been awaiting a death-penalty trial for three years. He estimates his county could save $1 million if the system worked more efficiently, with suspects getting a timely trial and those convicted being moved into state prisons.

In 1995, the circuit that includes York and Union counties became the first in South Carolina to adopt the case management system. It seems only logical, said prosecutor Kevin Brackett, though he noted it is difficult, especially for smaller, rural counties, to slow down long enough to implement the system.

For example, rather than waiting for poor suspects to make an appointment with a public defender, which resulted in cases languishing indefinitely, a magistrate appoints them a lawyer, he said.

"You're jump-starting a case as opposed to waiting all that time and nothing happening," Brackett said.

For several years, the system helped Brackett's circuit meet a benchmark that 80 percent of his cases were less than six months old. But in 2001, the number of cases began to skyrocket, with no more judges to handle them. No circuit court has met that 80 percent benchmark in at least three years, according to Toal.