Backlogs have plagued courts in Hamilton County for years, but records show judges are beginning to move cases quicker and are exceeding the pace at which new cases are filed.
“I think the figures would show, especially in the last few years, that we are resolving as many or more cases than are being filed,” Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman said.
In fiscal year 2004, 11,552 counts were filed in Criminal Court, but only 9,737 were resolved, records show.
In 2007, 11,817 counts were filed, yet records show the three Criminal Court judges resolved more than 12,000.
That’s good news for Hamilton County taxpayers, because court officials said clogged courts are more expensive to operate and can lead to jail overcrowding.
Defense attorney David Barrow said one contributor to court backlogs is unreasonable plea deals for lengthy, suspended sentences that often lead to probation violations. The same defendant then winds up back in the system.
“A little common sense would help,” Mr. Barrow said.
District Attorney Bill Cox said increasing caseloads mean prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges must work harder to keep up.
“We are always going to have pending cases,” he said. “The object is to dispose of as many cases as are filed.”
Criminal Court Judge Don Poole said all three Criminal Court judges hold attorneys accountable and ensure they make progress on their cases.
“We tell them that we are either going to dispose of it or get a trial date,” he said. “I think we have definitely put a dent in it.”
Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern said the best way to determine if a backlog exists is to see if as many cases are resolved as are filed.
“If that’s the case, then I feel we are doing our job,” she said. “There is never going to be a time when there are no pending cases. New ones are filed every week.”
According to records, 75 percent of Criminal Court cases in 2006 were resolved in fewer than 180 days from the indictment date. Only five cases resolved in 2006 were older than one year, records show.
Mr. Cox said “time to trial is always an issue.”
“We’d like to get cases to trial more quickly, but there are many factors that influence that,” he said.
Getting forensic lab results from the TBI and availability of witnesses are two of the most common problems that can cause a case to be delayed, Mr. Cox said.
In General Sessions Court, which primarily handles misdemeanor charges and holds preliminary hearings for some felonies, the situation is less severe.
Records show that 46,777 cases were filed in Sessions Court during calendar year 2007, but judges disposed of more than 50,000.
In 2005, records show that 53,190 cases were filed, but judges disposed of fewer than 52,000.
Sessions Judge Bob Moon said there is no backlog in Sessions Court now because of rules in the lower court that ensure a quick resolution.
Incarcerated defendants who cannot make bond are required to have a preliminary hearing within 10 days, and defendants who make bond are given a hearing within 30 days, he said.
“In addition to these two rules, the General Sessions Court has a local rule requiring all criminal cases to be resolved in 120 days,” Judge Moon said. “These three statutes of limitation keep the Hamilton County General Sessions Court expedient, efficient and backlog-free.”
However, records from 2006 indicate that it took an average of 140 days to dispose of cases in Sessions Court.
Judge Moon explained that there are at least a dozen factors that can cause a case to exceed 120 days.
The unavailability of police officers and witnesses and delayed toxicology test results are the most common reasons for delays, he said.
In 2006, Sessions Court judges disposed of 11,538 cases in fewer than 120 days, records show. More than 4,600 cases were older than 120 days when they were resolved, according to a court disposition report.
“I’m still very pleased with those numbers,” Judge Moon said
Judge Clarence Shattuck, like Judge Moon, cited rules that lessen the chances of a backlog in General Sessions Court.
“I really don’t think, as far as our court is concerned, there is ever the impression that we have a backlog,” he said.
Records show that Sessions Court cases for defendants housed in the Hamilton County Jail are resolved much quicker.
In 2005, 1,395 jail inmates’ cases was resolved in an average of about seven days, records show. In 2006, 1,258 inmates’ cases were resolved in an average of less than six days, according to court records.
Judge Shattuck pointed to the 10-day rule that guarantees a quick hearing for defendants who can’t make bond.
Hamilton County Public Defender Ardena Garth said whether you perceive that courts are clogged depends on how you look at it.
“I think a backlog is in the eye of the beholder,” she said. “Our efficiency (in the public defender’s office) is not determined by the speed of cases. Our job is to make sure someone’s rights are not trampled because of a backlog.”
Wally Kirby, executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, said court backlogs are not unique to Hamilton County.
“That’s a pretty general problem statewide and maybe a bigger problem in some of the metro areas,” he said. “It all goes to staffing levels. We haven’t gotten anywhere near where we need to be.”
According to Davidson County Criminal Court figures, 16,788 counts were filed in fiscal year 2007, but only 16,193 were resolved.
In Knox County, 8,738 counts were filed last year, and 8,750 were resolved.
Shelby County Criminal Court received 27,125 new filings, yet judges there disposed of 29,060, records show.
Judge Moon said the best way to speed up the criminal justice system is to have enough prosecutors and public defenders. In addition to delays, staffing shortages also can cause other problems, he said.
“The lack of a sufficient number of public defenders and district attorneys general, coupled with extremely heavy caseloads, increases the risk of poor resolutions in criminal cases,” he said.
Mr. Cox said he received state and county funding last year to hire more prosecutors.
“That has helped us meet those caseloads more efficiently,” he said.
There now are three prosecutors in each of the three divisions of Criminal Court and eight who handle the bulk of cases in General Sessions Court, he said.
Ms. Garth said she too received additional funds to hire additional staff and now has two attorneys in each courtroom.
She said her staffing situation is better than it has been in a long time.
“There’s always the feeling that more would be better,” she said.
Below is a list of how many Criminal Court counts were filed and resolved in Tennessee’s four largest cities during fiscal year 2007.
Davidson County 16,788 16,193
Hamilton County 11,817 12,298
Knox County 8,738 8,750
Shelby County 27,125 29,060
Source: Tennessee Administrative Office of Courts
2006 SESSIONS COURT DISPOSITIONS
* 140: Average number of days to dispose of a criminal case
* 3,419: Felonies sent to grand jury
* 3,111: Misdemeanors sent to grand jury
* 60: Percentage of convicted counts
* 8: Percent of convictions on lesser charge
Source: Hamilton County Courts
2006 CRIMINAL COURT DISPOSITIONS
* 78: Average days from preliminary hearing to indictment
* 745: Cases resolved within 30 days from indictment
* 85: Percentage of cases resolved within 180 days from indictment
* 58: Percentage of convicted counts
* 3: Percentage of convictions on a lesser charge
Source: Hamilton County Courts