YORK -- A shortage of judges in the state's 16th Judicial Circuit is forcing York County solicitors to seek more plea bargains to save court time and to help avoid a backlog of cases, officials say.
Arrest warrants in York County increased 32 percent from 2001 to 2005, and the number continues to rise. Yet, the number of judges has stayed the same.
Officials say there is only one fix: Hire more judges.
"More judges are obviously a big need," Chief Justice Jean Toal said during a recent visit to York. "It's acute in the 16th Circuit."
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Toal remains hopeful that a bill sponsored by state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, and several others will get the state Senate's nod of approval this session to add six new judges.
"We need more judges to expedite the cases that York County is facing," Simrill said. "They're growing in double-digit figures annually. If you look around our state, the need for judges is a nondebatable subject."
In South Carolina, there are 46 circuit court judges and 48 family court judges.
The bill earned approval from the state House last year. Now pending in the state Senate, the bill makes allowances for three at-large circuit court judges and three family court judges -- all good news to 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett.
"We have worked harder, faster and better, but we are tapped out," he said. "There's no other choice than to add more court time and judges."
This year, the solicitor's office is on track to tackle 50 percent more cases than it handled in 2001-2002, Brackett said.
"I can't try as many cases," he said. "Therefore, I have to put more of an emphasis on doing pleas in order to keep my head above the water. Otherwise, I get a backlog of cases."
A guilty plea uses 10 to 15 minutes of court time while a trial can last days or weeks at a time, Brackett said.
To get the job done, solicitors work with less court time, Brackett said. In 2001-2002, the solicitor's office had 48 weeks of court time. The department will have 46 weeks for court cases for the 2007-2008 year.
"The amount of court time that we have has not kept pace with the increase in crime over the last six or seven years," Brackett said. "What that means is that the jails are overcrowded and others are out on the streets on bond."
In 2001-2002, the solicitor's office dealt with 4,443 arrest warrants, according to state court administration documents. In 2002-2003, arrest warrants jumped to 5,089. Solicitors answered the call by working smarter, Brackett said.
"We managed," he said. "We were able to keep things on an even keel."
The following year, the office gained about 500 more arrest warrants. The upswing continued over recent years, and Brackett anticipates the office will see about 6,800 arrest warrants this year.
"We can't keep up," he said. "Eventually, the numbers overwhelm you."
Still, the solicitor's office isn't idle with its allotted court time, Toal said.
"Kevin Brackett is looked at as the leader in the state to manage the backlog," Toal said.
Toal and Brackett look forward to the proposed three new at-large circuit judges. That means Toal can send judges wherever they are needed across the state.
"The worst thing you have is crime being committed and folks not being convicted because there are too many pending cases for the number of judges we have to try the cases," Simrill said.
The three family court judges the bill co-sponsored by Simrill proposes could help bring resolution for children who are waiting in limbo for their cases to be presented in family court, he said.
"The children should not have to wait," he said. "These are children who need closure, and they're being put off by the system because the system is overloaded. It's a tragic situation."
The state Senate returned to session Tuesday. A failed bill means more stress for statewide judicial and family court systems, Simrill said.
"It means more waiting," he said. "The system will have less convictions in the criminal court and less closure in the family court. It will increase the tragic situations that we currently have in our criminal system."