Metro courts want millions to clear case backlog caused by pandemic

Metro Atlanta judges and district attorneys say they need millions in federal funds to reduce two years of court cases stuck in a logjam caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The virus has made it difficult to seat juries, conduct trials or consistently keep courthouse doors open. And when cases are held publicly, efforts to keep people safe such as social distancing, has slowed the process because fewer people can be in a courtroom at once.

“The DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office is estimated to be facing a backlog of three to five years, and it’s fair to say our fellow metro jurisdictions are facing similar challenges,” DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston said.

As a result, court officials are asking for millions from the American Rescue Plan Act to hire temporary personnel to reduce the number of old cases, from as little as $2 million in DeKalb to $75 million or more in Fulton.

“The prosecution of serious, violent felonies poses a significant challenge with jury trials only being held on a limited basis after having been at a standstill for 15 months between 2020 and 2021,” Boston said in an email. “Caseloads for staff handling these crimes have significantly increased.”

The funding push comes as the judiciary tries to balance the backlog with a rise in homicides in Atlanta and surrounding counties, as well as evictions, which have jumped from 7,500 a month before the pandemic to about 10,000 now, according to Atlanta Regional Commission data.

Gov. Kemp in October also pledged to spend $110 million in COVID-19 funding to address court backlogs across the state.

And even for those courtrooms that have operated virtually throughout the pandemic, the backlog is growing.

Clayton Magistrate Court Chief Judge Keisha Wright Hill told the south metro Atlanta community’s county commission in November that before the pandemic her office would address 200 eviction cases a day. That volume was severely reduced when the court went virtual.

“Pre-COVID, when we held dispossessory court, we had a calendar of 100 people in the morning and 100 people in the afternoon,” Hill told the commission in a request for part-time judges to catch up on old cases.

“Now we’re reduced to Zoom,” she said of the popular teleconferencing software. “We can only hear so many cases per hour per day.”

While county leaders have been supportive of the requests, they have reminded judicial leaders that the federal ARPA funding is temporary. Once the money runs out, the jobs will go with it.

“Whoever you hire, you are making them aware that when the funds run out, it is not sustainable and they can be out of a job with us,” responded Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeff Turner to a January funding request for judges and victim’s advocate positions.

Fulton County, which has a $1.25 billion budget, dedicated $75 million to deal with a backlog of 11,000 cases over the next few years. That money will include hiring 300 additional staffers and opening courts on nights and weekends. That number could grow as the county’s judicial leaders expect the problem to worsen before it gets better.

Gwinnett District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gatson said her office is working with Superior Court judges to hire judicial staff, but the plan is still in the discussion phase.

In Cobb, Chief Magistrate Judge Brendan Murphy last year sought numerous administrative techs and a judicial program coordinator to help reduce the backlog. In his appeal for help, Murphy said social distancing cut in half the 150 cases a day that could be heard in the court pre-pandemic.

DeKalb is seeking $2 million from the county’s 2022 budget for 10 attorneys, 10 investigators, five victim-witness advocates and five legal secretaries to help with the backlog from its homicide and gangs and domestic violence and sexual assault units.

“DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond has been very supportive and understanding of our efforts to address the backlog,” Boston said. “In his recommended 2022 budget, he has recognized the need to fund our office in a way that addresses the impact of COVID-19 on serious, violent crimes. We look forward to support from the board of commissioners.”