As court case backlog increases, authorities look for resolution

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comJune 14, 2014 

Last week the crowded 1,069-capacity Muscogee County Jail housed 1,116 inmates, and only 120 of them were guilty -- meaning they'd been found guilty in court and sentenced.

Of the rest, 914 had pending felonies, and of those, 158 had outstanding charges that for more than six months had not been presented to a grand jury for indictment, nor cited in a formal accusation so the case could proceed.

In Columbus courts, concern is growing that justice too long delayed is an injustice, and in some cases the effect is punishing people for poverty rather than wrongdoing -- stuffing the jail with people who spend months there not because they've been found guilty and sentenced, but because they simply can't afford even minimal bonds.

Even a few days in jail can ruin your life, if you're an hourly worker on minimum wage. If you can't make bond right away, you're stuck. Miss work, and you lose your job, and you have no income, so even if you make bond or serve out your time, you afterward won't have the money to pay fines and court fees. Fail to pay fines and court fees, and you go back to jail.

If you have dependents and rent a home, your family may be evicted without your income, and wind up on public assistance.

So when freed from jail months after your arrest, you have no job, no home, nothing. And you face the same predicament even if, in the end, your case is dismissed or you're acquitted.

Is that justice?

The chief administrators in Columbus' court system agree no one should be punished for poverty, that justice must be timely to be fair, that it's counterproductive to crowd jails with offenders who safely could await trial outside those walls while maintaining their livelihoods.

With the county jail well over budget and capacity, leaders are trying to find solutions, despite limited resources and legal complications.

The unindicted

Attorneys with the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit Public Defender's Office who represent indigent clients say the lack of indictment creates a bottleneck in the judicial system they are powerless to push through.

They cannot by Georgia law file a demand for speedy trial until the case is indicted, they say. They at any time can make a demand based on the U.S. Constitution, but that can drag on for years, without a set deadline. A statutory demand requires prosecutors to take most felony cases to trial or otherwise resolve them within two terms of court.

In Muscogee County, a term of court, during which judges hold jury trials, starts the first Monday in February, April, June, August, October and December. If the defense files a speedy trial demand at the end of March, the prosecutor must act on it by the end of the next court term, starting in April.

For potential death penalty cases, which in Georgia include armed robberies, prosecutors have three terms of court to address statutory speedy trial demands, attorneys said.

If suspects held without bond remain unindicted 90 days after their arrest, defense attorneys can file motions asking judges to set bonds, but in many cases those bonds are so high defendants can't afford the percentage needed to get a bonding company to secure their release.

That percentage is set at 15 percent on bonds of $10,000 or more, 12 percent if the bond's less than $10,000.

So defendants who can't make bond remain in jail waiting for their cases to move. The longer that takes, the more the backlog grows.

As the casual observer has little sympathy for those charged with the most heinous crimes, why should such delays concern the public?

"The government is holding someone in custody based on a minimal amount of evidence, including hearsay, at a preliminary hearing that may have lasted 10 minutes," said public defender Steve Craft, referring to hearings in Columbus Recorder's Court, where police need only establish "probable cause" that a felony case should proceed to Superior Court.

Said Craft's boss, Moffett Flournoy, the chief public defender, "The difference that a lot of citizens don't see is the difference between a convicted person being sentenced for something he's been proven guilty of and somebody who's just been accused of something, who's just sitting in jail waiting forever to have his day in court."

Leaving cases unindicted for months or years puts defendants in a sort of purgatory, Craft said. "That's truly what it is: It's purgatory. You can't move. You can't go anywhere. You can't go home; you can't go to prison. If the guy is guilty, make your case, and let's get him off to prison so he can start his sentence. If he's guilty, why are we delaying justice?"

Of prosecutors, he added, "They know that once they indict, then we have the leverage to put them on the clock, so as long as they don't indict it, then we have no leverage against them and the guy can just sit in jail and rot."

Craft was the defense attorney for Derrick Harris, accused of fatally stabbing his mother, Lorraine Street, on Dec. 11, 2008. Arrested two days later, Harris remained in jail without indictment for six years.

When called before Judge Frank Jordan Jr. this April to explain the delay, Craft said simply, "I can't indict him." Prosecutor Brad Bickerstaff told Jordan that he and Craft would work out a plea deal.

They resolved it through an optional route. Instead of taking the case to a grand jury for indictment, Bickerstaff drew up a "formal accusation," an alternative to indictment. On May 27, Harris pleaded guilty to manslaughter and using a knife to commit a crime, and Jordan sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

Flournoy and Craft believe prosecutors should use formal accusations more often in cases that can be resolved through plea deals, particularly for less serious felonies such as forgery or theft.

"Where we've identified people who want to plead to accusable offenses, there is no reason that can't be expedited," Craft said.

Data disclaimer

It's important to note that last week's list of 158 unindicted cases can be misleading. Because a suspect hasn't been indicted for a minor, years-old offense doesn't mean he hasn't been indicted for something more serious.

Craft generates an updated list of unindicted cases each Monday through a city computer program.

The list he produced last week shows Joshua Leonard, jailed July 16, 2011, hasn't been indicted on a charge of possessing marijuana with intent to distribute, and Jarvis Alexander, jailed Nov. 10, 2010, hasn't been indicted on battery and obstructing police charges.

But other court records show Leonard and Alexander have been indicted on murder charges in the Aug. 19, 2010, fatal shooting of Calvin Grimes.

The list of cases more than six months old also shows Anthony Seldon has not been indicted on three counts of criminal-attempt armed robbery. On June 2, Seldon pleaded guilty to 10 car break-ins and was sentenced to two years in prison and 10 on probation.

The oldest unindicted case on the computer printout goes back to Jan. 1, 2012, charging Brandon Banks with auto theft. Banks has been indicted on charge for stealing a gun on June 4, 2011, and because he in 2007 was convicted of attempted armed robbery, he also was indicted on a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

So the list shows offenses that have not been indicted, but that does not mean the suspect named doesn't face other charges.

District Attorney Julia Slater last week warned that deciphering the list by checking all the inmates' other cases can be complicated and tedious. She spent two weeks going through the cases on one printout, and because a new list is generated every Monday, the one she used was outdated by the time she was done.

Craft contends only a few inmates on the list have other cases that were indicted.

The prosecution

Slater said her office has tried to expedite cases before, and the strategy failed.

"About four years ago, I got a special prosecutor and only used her to try to do that -- to try to push cases that were some of the simpler cases that we could draw a formal accusation and get those pleas done. It simply did not work," she said.

What the prosecution learned was that some defendants who say they want to plea later decide they'd rather not, unless they're facing trial, she said.

"They weren't willing to plead guilty, especially if it meant any more time in jail or any time in prison, until they were threatened with a trial," said the district attorney. "We were trying to get these cases moved in 30 days, if at all possible, but the system didn't work. That's not to say that a system like that couldn't work."

Sometimes other motivations overwhelm defendants' desire to resolve cases. For example, some find the county jail, where their friends and relatives can visit, is preferable to a prison in another city across the state.

When sentenced, jail inmates usually get credit for time served in the jail, typically two days off the final sentence for every day in jail. They get four days' credit for each day served if they perform institutional work while incarcerated.

If they can serve much of their sentence in their home county's jail, they're in no rush to go to a state prison, prosecutors said.

So it takes the pressure of an impending trial to spur them to plea, Slater said.

A quip court workers quote captures that, she said.

"The joke is going to trial is like going to heaven. Everybody wants to go, but nobody wants to go today."

Slater does not believe in rushing cases to court without further investigation.

"The DA's office is not a rubber stamp for the police department or the sheriff's office," she said. "When we receive a case, we critically review it to determine whether or not the charges that the defendant was arrested on are appropriate. Sometimes we dismiss warrants, or we take cases to the grand jury and they get no-billed. There's not enough evidence to go forward."

Sometimes her investigators find evidence that warrants additional charges, she said.

"I think that leaving someone in jail unindicted and unaccused is an injustice, but without the adequate personnel to do a critical review within that time, it would be unjust to do it too quickly," she said, later adding, "Swift justice is only just if it's fair, not just in the pre-indictment phase, but for trials as well. Both sides need to be given adequate time to prepare for the next step in the judicial process. I think that a rush to judgment is not justice. It's not fair to the victims of crime and it's not fair to those who are charged."

Neither is letting someone sit months or years in jail without indictment, Craft said.

"There's no closure for anybody else involved in the case, in cases where there are victims, whether it's something as simple as a misused credit card or a burglary or a murder. These people have no closure in their case until these cases come to court.

"It is unfair to everybody across the board: the witnesses who have to return to court multiple times, the victims due restitution, and most importantly the people sitting in jail, rotting away, while nothing happens."

The jail

Muscogee County Jail supervisors don't complain they have too many murder suspects awaiting indictment or trial.

Muscogee County Sheriff's Commander Dane Collins, who heads the jail staff, said that's what a jail is for -- to house the most dangerous inmates who threaten public safety. That's a priority. What complicates that task is loading the jail with indigent defendants who can't make bond even if they face relatively minor charges.

"We would love to focus our attention on the people who are really dangerous to the community, because that's really why we're here," Collins said.

On average, each inmate costs taxpayers $50 a day, depending on medical needs.

Keeping people jailed just because they can't afford a bond runs up the costs.

"Somebody that has a nonviolent type of felony, they may have a $1,000 to $2,500 bond, and they're just indigent and just can't make it," he said. "It winds up costing the taxpayers about 50 bucks a day for that person on average, and they're here for eight months, usually."

Eight months at $50 a day comes out to about $12,000 per inmate.

With the jail consistently overcrowded and over budget, the sheriff's office that runs it would like to clear out the nonviolent offenders who, if they had the money, would be out on bond anyway.

"We have a huge problem with working-class people who come in the jail on charges with bonds, maybe traffic violations with a DUI, and very quickly those bonds get up around $3,000," said sheriff's Maj. Randy Robertson.

The percentage needed to hire a bonding company for that comes out to about $350, he said. "Well, to some people's surprise, there are a lot of people who don't have $350 laying in the bank."

For those who remain in jail just because they have no property or cash to put up for a bond, a prolonged stay can lead to health issues that increase the costs of their incarceration, said sheriff's Lt. Jeri Johnson, who's among Collins' jail staff.

"Your life changes, as you are waiting to go to court," she said. "People get anxious: 'When's my court date? Please get me in front of a judge.' … Birthdays, anniversaries come along. They get frustrated. They want to see a doctor, and need something to sleep. That's usually how it starts."

Others wind up in jail because of mental illness, and they're almost certain to remain there weeks for treatment, particularly if a judge orders a psychological evaluation, which can take months to arrange.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys agree that, while necessary, usually a psychological evaluation is certain to prolong a case. Derrick Harris, the defendant who went six years without indictment after killing his mother, did not get a psychological evaluation until 2010, two years after his arrest.

Collins said probation violations delay resolving a case, too. Often suspects have previous offenses for which new charges constitute a probation violation. Those violations are supposed to get a court hearing within 30 days, Collins said, but rarely does that happen.

Still a primary concern is whether the court system is treating people differently not because of their crimes, but because of their economic status.

Johnson recalled an inmate who tried with his wife and children to rebuild his life upon release.

"I talked to a gentleman whose driver's license was suspended," she said. "Well, he can't drive, so he's taking the bus to look for a job and get to the probation office to pay his fine. He can't pay his fine because he doesn't have a job, and can't drive. It's just a big mess. He ends up coming back to jail because he cannot pay his fine."

Slater, the district attorney, agrees punishing people for being poor is wrong.

"None of us wants somebody sitting in jail because they can't afford what somebody else can afford to get out. That is unjust," she said. "People who can't afford it need to be given the same opportunities."

Seeking solutions

This year the sheriff's office initiated a program to address the problem of impoverished defendants unable to pay their bonds.

Slater called it "pretrial release." Robertson called it "virtual incarceration."

Instead of paying bonds, inmates who qualify are released from jail under supervision, some wearing ankle monitors to track their movements and ensure they don't violate the restrictions imposed upon them.

The sheriff added no new personnel for the program, Robertson said. The deputies supervising those suspects are the same ones who monitor registered sex offenders. They just have this added duty.

So far about 35 defendants are in the program, and even if some must wear an ankle monitor at a cost of $6 to $8 a day, it's still a significant savings over the $50 a day it would cost to keep each in jail.

The program is of no benefit to the homeless who so often get arrested for criminal trespass or burglary after breaking into a vacant building to sleep. The inmates must have homes where deputies can find them.

It's also no help to anyone charged with a predatory offense such as murder, armed robbery, rape or child molestation, nor for anyone with a history of missing court.

Said Robertson: "If you're a sex offender, if you sell drugs, if you have a heavy criminal history, if we look and see you have several contempt of courts where you've failed to show up, there's not a lot of motivation to let you out. We know we're going to have to spend more resources to bring you back."

The program doesn't always work. Deputies later discovered an inmate on pretrial release had a charge of impersonating a police officer. They had him turn himself back in.

For others, the program works well. Robertson cites the case of a 17-year-old woman who with her boyfriend was charged with aggravated assault after a group brawl. Living with her parents, she needed no ankle monitor.

She so far has met all the requirements, checking in regularly with the deputy who monitors her. While out of jail, she obtained a high school diploma online and expects to start at Columbus State University in the fall. She's also trying to find a job, one of the requirements of pretrial release.

One aim of the program is to allow suspects to keep jobs while they await their next court date.

"They don't have to be in jail to be indicted," Robertson said. "Let them be productive citizens in the community while they're going through the criminal justice process, as opposed to us parking them, and everything piling up on them."

By year's end, he hopes to have 100 defendants on pretrial release, saving the jail $5,000 a day.

Meanwhile, Collins hopes the county can reduce its jail population to fewer than 1,000.

"We need to be at 969 or so before we really can see some true savings," he said. "That's where we can close a unit and not hire some people and do some of those types of things."

The back end

Some attorneys and other court workers say that the sales tax voters passed in 2008 to add 100 police officers to the city force helped boost the backlog of court cases -- that city leaders effectively "front-loaded" the criminal justice system with new police cases while neglecting to add staff up the line, to accommodate the increase.

Last year the district attorney, the public defender and Chief Superior Court Judge Gil McBride proposed adding positions to help clear the backlog, but in a tight budget year, the proposal was set aside.

Slater said six additional workers were needed to set up a court to handle relatively minor cases that could be expedited. The proposal's still on the table, she said.

"Because of the budget situation, we weren't able to get that personnel, but I think that if we were able to get that sometime in the future, if revenue increases, I would love to try that again."

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