Georgia’s court backlog is costing taxpayers millions, Chief Justice tells lawmakers

Case backlogs are continuing to plague Georgia courts, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs told lawmakers this week.
Published: Mar. 10, 2023 at 7:56 PM EST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Case backlogs are continuing to plague Georgia courts, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Boggs told lawmakers this week.

The financial burden is shifting to taxpayers while inmates spend, in some cases, years behind bars without a court appearance.

“The numbers in certain parts of Georgia are truly astounding and the resolution of these caseloads will not be easy,” said Boggs. “Courts at every level in Georgia, throughout this state, are emerging from the fog of the COVID-19 pandemic only to be confronted with new challenges presented by truly crushing caseloads.”

On average, it costs $18,000 to house an inmate for a year. The more defendants sit behind bars, the higher the cost to taxpayers.

Fulton County alone, Boggs said, has an astonishing 14,000 unindicted felony cases and 4,000 indicted felony cases that still haven’t gone to trial. In some of the worst instances, defendants have sat in cells for years without ever receiving a day in court.

“Fulton County’s not alone,” said Boggs. “These high case volumes are present in some other jurisdictions throughout the state as well.”

Rural areas have been especially affected. In Dougherty County, which includes the city of Albany in its boundaries, there were 10,000 pending felony cases as of the end of 2022. Around 2,500 of them involved serious violent felonies like murder, armed robbery, rape, and other sex offenses.

“Really the kinds of cases where it’s clearly in the public’s best interest to have your most experienced prosecutors working,” said Boggs, who noted the issue is also partly due to staffing shortages.

At the current time, Boggs noted that Dougherty County only had four prosecutors when pre-pandemic they had twice as many.

“We need judges and prosecutors, we need public defenders and court reporters, we need clerks and interpreters and courtroom security,” said Boggs. “Without any one of those critical components, the judicial system simply doesn’t work.”

Boggs praised the legislature and Governor Brian Kemp for providing over $100 million during Kemp’s first term to address backlogs but said it wasn’t enough to quell the issue entirely.

“As is often the case, we’ve learned that money alone will not fix the problem,” he said.

Because of pandemic-era orders, defendant’s constitutional rights to a speedy trial were suspended under Georgia law says Josh Schiffer, a defense attorney who practices in Atlanta.

“The judicial emergency suspended – and this is in writing, these are orders from our Georgia Supreme Court – suspended many of the otherwise standard rights and privileges we have when you’re involved in the criminal justice process,” he said. “You have a right to things like a speedy trial that’s been told and stopped for right now.”

Both criminal and civil cases are being held up by the backlog and staffing shortages, and Schiffer worries about how courts will prioritize cases once they finally can get around to them.

“How are you going to weigh what’s more important, what takes priority, and what doesn’t?” he said. “Someone’s constitutional right to a speedy trial, how does that fit into someone very much needing resolution of a very important civil issue such as a divorce or child support?”

“The older these cases get, the harder it is for the state to effectively prosecute them,” Schiffer continued. “We get better justice with an efficient judicial system.”

On top of the legal implications of waiting to prosecute crimes, there are emotional strains on both the defendant and the victims and their families waiting for their day in court, too. Some of Schiffer’s clients have been behind bars for years with no end to their time in sight.

“You’ve basically removed them from society prior to their conviction,” he said. “You can certainly recover from a weekend, or a week or two, or maybe even a month or two in jail. But if you’ve been incarcerated for six months or a year, you’ve basically lost everything.”