Catoosa County leaders want to create a new court

Catoosa County leaders want to create a new court

August 7th, 2014 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Ralph Van Pelt on the courthouse steps in Catoosa County

RINGGOLD, Ga. - Catoosa County's law enforcement leaders want to create a new court next year.

During a work session Tuesday morning, Sheriff Gary Sisk, District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin, Public Defender David Dunn and Superior Court Judge Ralph Van Pelt Jr. told the Catoosa County Commission they need a state court to speed up misdemeanor cases from arrest to judgment.

If created, a Catoosa County State Court would handle misdemeanor crimes -- those punishable by less than one year in jail -- and some civil cases currently heard in Superior Court. It would also take traffic cases from Probate Court. Seventy counties in Georgia have state courts, including Chattooga and Walker.

During Tuesday's meeting, Georgia Council of State Court Judges Executive Director Bob Bray gave the Catoosa County Commission a study he has conducted about the impact of a state court. Based on superior court's and probate court's workloads the past five years, Bray said a state court would handle about 4,500 cases each year.

Bray's study shows that, if a state court is created and no current court employees increase their workloads, the county would hire seven employees. That would cost taxpayers about $530,000 a year.

However, Bray's study did not estimate how much time it would take for a misdemeanor case to play out in state court, and that was the selling point many people provided to the County Commission on Tuesday morning.

Sisk said an additional court would mean that certain defendants spend less time in jail, which would save taxpayers about $42 for every defendant, every day. Sisk said an average of about 250 inmates stay in the 240-bed jail every night.

"We need some relief," he said. "Some way. Somehow."

Van Pelt said an additional judge could hear other court proceedings when Van Pelt is not available.

"The state court judge, whoever it is, would be here all the time," he said. "I'm not here all the time. I have a responsibility to be in four different counties. If I'm trying cases in Walker County, I'll be in Walker County all week. ... If I'm not here, I can't hear a motion for getting someone out of jail."

Likewise, Franklin and Dunn said the misdemeanor cases clog up the workload for prosecutors and public defenders. In a state court, a separate solicitor and potentially a separate public defender would handle those cases.

State Rep. Tom Weldon was also at the meeting. He said local leaders have been trying to add a state court for about three years.

If the commission approves of adding the court, Weldon said, he will introduce a bill in the state legislature to create the court next year. If that passes, Catoosa County could have a state court by July 1.

"It will provide cost savings," he said. "it will get people out quicker and more efficiently."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.