In spite of significantly fewer felony arrests in Fulton County during the pandemic, Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs said Wednesday that Fulton’s 18,000 pending felony cases illustrate the severity of the strain placed on a number of judicial systems as large case backlogs threaten to take years to get settled.
During his State of the Judiciary address before state lawmakers at the Capitol, Boggs described the steep road ahead and some of the steps being taken to get a grip on the tens of thousands of civil and criminal cases that remain unresolved as Georgia courts return to normalcy.
Boggs described the criminal case statistics as “astounding” from Georgia’s large metropolitan areas to its rural communities.
In Fulton there are now 14,000 unindicted felonies and in Dougherty County an estimated 200 people have spent at least two years awaiting trial in jail. Although Dougherty received federal funding to hire more staff, the district attorney was still unable to hire enough prosecutors in a county that had more than 2,500 serious violent cases to process, including murder, rape, and armed robbery, Boggs said.
“Courts at every level in Georgia are emerging from the fog of uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic only to be confronted with new challenges presented by crushing caseloads,” he said.
“And, despite the best efforts of our courts to stay as functional as possible, within the bounds of health and law, many courts have accrued a backlog of cases, both criminal and civil, that resulted from the significant delays in proceedings at all levels,” Boggs said.
Boggs said that the large number of pending criminal cases presents another problem of ensuring that the accused receive due process. He said that he is encouraged that so many judges and other court officials understand the importance of resolving legal matters quickly, whether they are criminal or civil cases such as divorce, custody battles, or estate settlements following the death of a loved one.
“Critically though, criminal cases, unlike their civil counterpart, present significant implications on the constitutional rights of the accused, pose serious speedy trial issues and affect the families of victims awaiting justice and their need for closure,” Boggs said.
“There is still a long way to go, but our trial court judges are demonstrating incredible leadership in tackling this problem,” Boggs added.
Boggs remarks in his first report on the state’s judicial system echoed the sentiments of his two predecessors about how the logjam of cases presents the greatest challenge to the state’s justice system.
Boggs became the leader of the state’s highest court last summer following the resignation of former Chief Justice David Nahmias. In 2021, ex-Chief Justice Harold Melton returned to private law practice after guiding the state’s courts through the turbulent COVID-19 pandemic, as health and safety protocols made it difficult to operate courtrooms.
Boggs, however, expressed optimism in strides gained after a steep 75% decrease in felony jury trials from 2019-2020, referencing a 182% increase in 2021 and a 14% bump over the first eight months of 2022.
Using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, the state was able to distribute $96 million for courts to hire temporary judges and assistant prosecutors, open up courtrooms and spend another $14 million to support public defenders in taking on felony cases.
Boggs thanked lawmakers assembled for his remarks for continuing to support veterans, mental health and substance abuse accountability courts, which cut down on recidivism, and for mental health reform. He said better support services for people suffering from mental illnesses can go a long way toward reducing the rate of one in every 33 adults in Georgia being incarcerated.
The chief justice also commended legislators for backing a bill to bring prosecutor and public defender salaries closer to the national average.
“For our court system to operate effectively and justly, we need every component at full capacity: judges, prosecutors, public defenders, court reporters, clerks, interpreters, and courtroom security,” Boggs said. “Without any one of these components, the judicial system simply doesn’t work.”
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