Bill Kenerly column: Courts need expansion along with the jail
By Bill Kenerly
For the Salisbury Post
The chronic underfunding of North Carolina’s Justice System is criminal. Even though North Carolina has a unified state-funded court system, many legislators blame local officials for rising crime rates, prison and jail overcrowding, court delays and backlogs, inadequate victim services and myriad other problems. Unless and until the General Assembly adequately funds our justice system, these problems will persist.
The 2008 session of the General Assembly is expected to address prison crowding. “Prisons” house people convicted of crimes, while “jails” or “detention centers” house people awaiting trial in criminal cases. Prisons are funded by the state, while county government is responsible for the local jail. In addressing prison crowding legislative committees and concerned citizens have suggested reducing the punishment for non-violent offenders or developing punishment alternatives that do not include imprisonment.
In fact, during 2005 n 2006, 53 percent of prison admissions (14,371 persons) in North Carolina were the result of probation revocations: i.e., more than half of the people admitted to prison that year were originally given suspended sentences. They were imprisoned only after they willfully failed to comply with their probation terms. When persons convicted of crime but given a suspended prison sentence refuse to comply with the terms of suspension, prison is the only appropriate response. Reducing punishment or developing “alternatives” ignores the obvious: Our courts deal with a significant number of scofflaws who are not interested in self-improvement. Processing these probation violations, by the way, occupies 20 percent of our court time in Rowan County.
Many factors contribute to overcrowding in the Rowan Detention Center, not the least of which is the backlog of criminal cases awaiting trial. On Tuesday (March 4), our Detention Center housed 275 inmates (about 110 over capacity), most with multiple charges. Some of these inmates have been in jail in excess of two years awaiting trial. Considering only the most serious charge against each inmate, 131 are charged with violent felonies, 76 with non-violent felonies and 68 with misdemeanors. Of those charged with violent felonies, 23 are charged with first-degree murder, 14 with attempted first-degree murder, nine with felonious assault and 34 with robbery with a dangerous weapon. All of these charges require resolution in Rowan County Criminal Superior Court, where approximately 2,000 cases are pending.
The frequency of Criminal Superior Court is mandated by the state. The number of pending civil cases, as well as the availability of courtroom space, judges, prosecutors, clerks, court reporters and bailiffs must be considered in allocating Criminal Superior Court. Unlike Civil Superior Court, Criminal Superior Court requires a secure environment. Conducting Criminal Court at the Rowan Museum, for instance, is not an option. The current unified court system went into effect in Rowan County in 1971, and the county was originally allocated 10 weeks of Criminal Superior Court. By 1977, the Court allocation had doubled to 20 weeks. In the ensuing 30 years, our allocation of court increased to 23 weeks. With the assistance of Judge John Holshouser, civil court has been reduced so that criminal court can be increased. Therefore our allocation of criminal court is expected to increase to 28 weeks during 2008.
In North Carolina, the district attorney, not the judge, is responsible for moving criminal cases through the court system. The state has allocated seven assistant district attorneys to the Rowan County District Attorney’s Office. I have assigned four assistant district attorneys to Superior Court, two to Probable Cause Court and one to District Court. The number of pending cases and the amount of available court show that each Superior Court assistant district attorney carries an average caseload of 500, and has about six weeks a year to deal with those 500 cases.
The Superior Court caseload does not count felony cases that are resolved by guilty pleas in District Court. Since 1997, state law has allowed the entry of guilty pleas to lower level felonies in District Court. Our district is one of only a few in the state to utilize this tool. Each year 400-500 felony guilty pleas are recorded in District Court, thus preventing a further backlog in Superior Court.
I take great pride in the manner of disposition of cases in Rowan County Criminal Superior Court. Consider our felony dispositions in Superior Court for 2007: 72.9 percent pleaded guilty as charged (fifth highest in the state); 2 percent were resolved by jury trial (13th highest in the State); and only 12.2 percent were dismissed (third lowest in the state). But these successful prosecutions come with a price: congested court dockets and overcrowded jails.
Every prosecutor has the tools to control the size of his/her personal caseload: those tools are known as “dismissals” and “plea bargains.” As your elected district attorney, I set the ground rules for the utilization of these “tools,” and these ground rules directly impact the population of our local detention center. For example, my personal caseload includes the 23 persons in jail charged with murder. From my knowledge of their cases, I calculate that 18 of them would plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter tomorrow. However, I believe that each is guilty of either first- or second-degree murder, so plea bargains to manslaughter will not be offered.
So why does it take so long to get a case to trial? To some extent crowded court dockets are self perpetuating: As the backlog grows, the waiting time for each new case increases. And crime has increased with the growing population of our county. Nevertheless, from 1991-2001, we were able to dispose of cases within a reasonable time period. In 2000, our legislature created the Office of Indigent Defense Services. This office oversees the performance of defense counsel and manages the budget for indigent criminal defense in this state. Counsel for indigent defendants now have performance guidelines. Compliance with these guidelines requires defense counsel to spend increased amounts of time in their preparation and defense of criminal cases. I agree that criminal defendants need quality representation. However, the legislature has not provided law enforcement, court or prosecution resources adequate to respond to this new and improved defense of criminal cases. Investigators, crime labs, prosecutors, and courtrooms have been overwhelmed. Witness the recent Lisa Greene trial in Cabarrus County, which lasted four months. Using homicides as an example, in 2000 the average time from initiation of charges to final disposition was 420 days. By 2007, that time had exploded to 577 days.
Many of the causes for jail and court overcrowding are beyond local control: population and crime rate increases, staffing of state crime labs and the manner in which criminal cases are defended, to name a few. However, local leaders can provide additional courtrooms and bailiffs so that additional court can be conducted. I am proud that our county commissioners have contracted for the construction of additional courtrooms in the Justice Center.
Hopefully this will allow us to increase the amount of Criminal Superior Court to 40 weeks a year, thus enabling us to move cases more quickly. Eventually, this should have a positive impact on the overcrowding in the Detention Center.
In the meantime our leaders must find a way to resolve jail overcrowding. I do not believe that any of our commissioners would favor massive and irresponsible plea bargains as a solution to this problem. In any case, irresponsible plea bargains will not be entered as long as I remain district attorney.