Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton

ATLANTA – The suspension of jury trials in Georgia during the coronavirus pandemic has created a substantial backlog across the court system, Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton told state lawmakers Wednesday.

Capitol Beat News Service
This story also appeared in Capitol Beat News Service

Melton ordered jury trials suspended last March as the virus broke out across the Peach State, the first in a series of judicial emergency orders he has issued every month since.

The backlog of cases that has piled up won’t go away, even when all Georgians who want COVID-19 vaccinations have received them and the pandemic eases, Melton told members of the state House and Senate Appropriations committees during the second day of budget hearings.

“It can easily take a year to two years to dig out of a jury trial backlog,” he said.

Superior Court Judge Wade Padgett of Augusta said it might even take as long as three years to get rid of the backlog, even though courts resumed jury trials for six to eight weeks last year at a time COVID-19 cases were on the decline.

“Whenever they’re allowed to resume, we’re going to be busier than ever,” Padgett said.

A silver lining in the suspension of jury trials is that the delays helped the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) clear nearly half of the roughly 46,000 cases backlogged in the agency’s crime lab, GBI Director Vic Reynolds told lawmakers. The backlog now stands at about 24,000 cases.

Reynolds said the GBI benefitted from outsourcing drug identification and DNA tests to private labs and shelved old cases on advice from local police agencies. GBI scientists also had more time to finish lab tests with jury trials suspended.

“That’s still too high,” Reynolds said of the remaining case backlog. “But I’m very proud of the fact that we cut those numbers down some 20,000 over the course of 2020.”

GBI’s crime lab looks to be spared any cuts to its $41.7 million  budget request, while officials have asked state lawmakers for about $4 million to replace several dozen vehicles and around $500,000 to boost the agency’s gang-fighting staff and tracking database.

Reynolds also detailed how low salaries for GBI medical examiners compared to other states and even counties like Cobb and Fulton have led to turnover that has driven up autopsy caseloads for local doctors far above national averages. Officials still have not replaced Macon’s retired medical examiner, whose departure in October forced the office to close.

“We need some help,” Reynolds said of the low salaries.

Like the GBI, the state Department of Public Safety (DPS), which runs the Georgia State Patrol, had a busy 2020 with officers tapped for guard duty at protests over racial injustice during the summer and over election results in recent weeks.

With around 1,000 sworn troopers on patrol statewide, DPS Commissioner Chris Wright said his office is working on incentive plans to pay for college degrees and offer communications training to retain more mid-career staff who have left for local police agencies.

Wright took charge last October after a cheating scandal among trooper trainees ousted former DPS Commissioner Mark McDonough. The agency is asking lawmakers to support nearly $3.2 million for a new 75-person trooper school and $56 million in bond funds to replace its Atlanta headquarters.

“Our agency has proudly served and protected during the most difficult time in modern history,” Wright said Wednesday.

With tight budgets this fiscal year and next, Georgia’s prison and juvenile detention systems are asking lawmakers to approve 10% pay raises for staff. State Corrections and Juvenile Justice department chiefs outlined plans to use existing funds and freeze vacant positions to pay for the salary hike.

“These are living wages that people can come to work and earn a decent living right now,” said Georgia Corrections Commissioner Timothy Ward.

COVID-19 has hit both agencies hard since March. Juvenile detention centers saw 413 staff members and 121 youth offenders test positive for the virus. State prisons reported 1,444 staff and 2,956 inmates tested positive, including 89 deaths.

The pandemic prompted prison officials to release thousands of low-level offenders last year, reducing the state’s roughly 55,000-inmate count in January 2020 to about 8,500 as of this month, Ward said. He expects the prison population to climb back to previous levels once the pandemic eases.

Dave Williams is bureau chief for Capitol Beat News Service, a service of the Georgia Press Education Foundation.