Clearing COVID-19 backlog in Fulton Courts will cost $60M

Superior Court Judge Shawn Lagrua speaks as she presides a case in the courtroom where plexiglass dividers are installed at Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Superior Court Judge Shawn Lagrua speaks as she presides a case in the courtroom where plexiglass dividers are installed at Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Logjam of 10,000 criminal cases will take 3 years to resolve

Hundreds of inmates sit in the Fulton County Jail waiting for COVID-19 to recede so regular court can start again.

No one knows the date, but when it comes, Fulton’s courts will face a backlog of roughly 10,000 criminal cases and an unknown amount of civil cases — a logjam that dwarfs other Metro Atlanta counties.

Those who lead the judicial system in Georgia’s most-populated county are currently creating a plan, but Fulton County Manager Dick Anderson said the best estimate is that it will take 36 months and cost at least $60 million to solve the problem.

The money will come from the $200 million recently sent to Fulton in federal stimulus funds to address the coronavirus pandemic.

That $60 million will be split among prosecutors, public defenders, the sheriff’s office, judges, the chief clerk and other agencies that make criminal justice run, said Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Christopher Brasher. He said he thinks the entire system will need 250 total additional staff to expedite the cases.

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As for how to handle the influx, Brasher said all options are on the table — from night/weekend court and renting space for court proceedings to running multiple grand juries at the same time — because what’s left are the most complex cases.

“We’ve dealt with as much of the low-handing-fruit cases as we can,” Brasher said.

These are still early days.

Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis said her next step is giving the Fulton County Commission a budget. Willis said she’s going to need 30 to 35 more attorneys (at a median salary of $80,000 per year) along with 15 investigators and 15 legal assistants. Then she said she’ll need 25 offices, which will mean putting cubicles in filing rooms. She hopes bench trials, conducted without a jury, will help clear the pile-up.

“The DA is the engine to what’s going on,” she said. “The judges don’t have anything to preside over if we don’t give them cases.”

Willis estimates her backlog operation alone will require $15 million a year — on the low end.

Backlog blues

Just two weeks ago, Chief Justice Harold Melton of the Supreme Court of Georgia again allowed jury trials to resume “as local conditions allow,” citing the slowing spread of the virus. He allowed trials to start again in October but halted them in December when cases spiked.

Many courts over the past year held virtual proceedings. But the legal system — with hallway plea deals and tons of notarized paperwork — wasn’t made for a digital world and was deeply troubled before the virus.

And now the stakes are high for Fulton, where the county’s over-crowded jail on Rice Street is stacked with people who are innocent until proven guilty.

When the pandemic started, Brasher said, 10% of the jail’s population hadn’t been formally charged, meaning indicted.

Now? It’s 50-50.

In mid-February, Sheriff Patrick Labat said 730 inmates had been in custody at least 365 days. The county jail is meant to simply hold inmates while the legal process figures out how to handle their cases.

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Fulton has a much larger case backlog than neighboring counties.

The district attorney for Gwinnett County, which like Fulton boasts roughly 1 million residents, said they have a buildup of 700 criminal cases.

Gwinnett’s Newly elected DA Patsy Austin-Gatson said she hopes to begin regular jury trials on April 19.

Mid-April is when Willis hopes to be just presenting the Fulton County Commission with her backlog budget proposal.

DeKalb County has 1,538 cases awaiting a grand jury. DeKalb district attorney spokeswoman Yvette Jones said county leaders might run two grand juries when courts re-open.

Cobb County in 2020 was only able to close half as many cases as the 6,500 they did in 2019, said Cobb district attorney spokeswoman Kim Isaza.

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At current staffing levels, Isaza said, it will take two to three years to clear the cases. But they have identified the need for six prosecutors and 13 other new positions in the DA’s office.

When asked why Fulton’s backlog was so much larger, Willis said it can’t all be blamed on the coronavirus because some cases date back to 2017.

With so much pressure to clear the ledger, Willis promised that the increased pace won’t compromise justice.

“What we do is too serious, so we can’t skip steps,” she said.

How will it work?

For the last year, Chief Judge Brasher has told people that getting through the backlog will take three times longer than the length of the pandemic.

He said the court’s goal will be to clear the oldest cases first.

This particular logjam is different from others in the criminal justice system, like with immigration or the long waits for rape kits to be tested, because many of these cases haven’t even started through the system, he said.

These cases aren’t hitting speed bumps, they’re barely out of the driveway.

“Now there’s going to be a pent-up demand for trials and clearly that demand is going to outstrip the supply,” he said.

That may mean hiring retired judges, who don’t come cheap, as contractors.

Superior Court Judge Shawn Lagrua speaks as she presides a case in the courtroom  where plexiglass dividers are installed at Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Superior Court Judge Shawn Lagrua speaks as she presides a case in the courtroom where plexiglass dividers are installed at Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Brasher said they are also exploring renting space, possibly at the Georgia World Congress Center, which hosted some Fulton’s elections operations last year. Brasher said a ballroom could hold six courtrooms for non-violent offenders or civil cases.

He hopes to begin clearing backlog cases by January 2022.

When they do start, it will produce a blizzard of paperwork for the clerk of court. Every case in every court session creates at least one sheet of paper, and some filings are hundreds of pages.

Magistrate judges handle first appearance for criminal cases, then, generally, felony cases go to superior court with the district attorney and misdemeanors go to state court with the solicitor general.

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That means Magistrate Court Clerk Tina Robinson will need more workers, though she doesn’t know how many. Much of her 250-person court staff has been cross-trained, but it’ll be hard to hire people willing to come aboard for a three-year project.

“It’s been very difficult to hire temporary staff,” she said.

Brasher said that, no matter what course they map, the system won’t be able to go from 10% to 120% capacity overnight.

“Whatever it takes to get us there, there’s going to be a several-month slope,” he said.

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