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Courts are backlogged with cases after pandemic. Officials hope $1.1M in federal funds will help move things along
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A room is set up for Juvenile Court on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, in the Hall County Courthouse Annex. - photo by Austin Steele

With more than 1,000 unindicted cases in Hall County alone, the Northeastern Judicial Circuit has applied for $1.1 million in federal funds to address the court’s backlog. 

The circuit, which includes Hall and Dawson counties, submitted an application to churn through the judicial backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In October, Gov. Brian Kemp announced he would allocate up to $110 million in American Rescue Plan funds for court backlogs.

The application was announced during a Monday, Dec. 6, work session for the Hall County Board of Commissioners. No matching funds are required by the county.

The award notifications for the grant are expected Dec. 21. 

According to data submitted by the court with its application, there are 764 indicted pending cases in the circuit, which is 27% higher than the pre-pandemic levels. 

“In 2021, Hall County alone has swelled to 1,121 pending unindicted cases as of Oct. 1 — an increase of 62% over pre-pandemic levels,” according to the court’s application. “While grand juries have been convened weekly to work through this backlog, the number of pending cases remains extraordinarily high and offers a clear preview of the cases that are in the ‘pipeline’ that will soon hit dockets and trial calendars.”

Court officials said the circuit “cannot dispose of its still-growing caseload without additional resources.”

Part of the plan is appointing an additional Juvenile Court judge next year — which was already in the works for 2024 — who will take on civil and domestic cases in Superior Court while the other five Superior Court judges handle more serious criminal cases.

Court administrator Jason Stephenson said the circuit’s officials will evaluate the caseload in Juvenile Court and the status of the backlog toward the end of 2022.

“Closer to the end of the year, we just look at how much progress we’ve made and where the need is for how to use that judge in 2023,” Stephenson said.

After 2022, Stephenson said the judge would likely split time between Juvenile and Superior, though a specific ratio would be determined later.

The Superior Court judges would likely appoint the Juvenile Court judge in April following a three-month legal notice.

Most of the grant request is for personnel, which also includes an assistant district attorney, court reporter, investigator, clerk, interpreter, assistants and administrative secretary. The budgeted salary for the judge is $215,541.

Court officials also want to use senior judges, who are often retired Superior Court judges, to hold court for 10 days each month.

Because all of the courtrooms are being used, court officials have budgeted $50,000 for an off-site location “to schedule low-security, small crowd hearings” that will also house the new Juvenile Court judge in the interim, according to the application.

More than a year ago, court officials vetted roughly 25 locations for jury trials and selected the North Hall Community Center for State Court trials, Stephenson said.

“There’s just nowhere to put another judge in another courtroom, and we’re busting at the seams,” he said.

The circuit’s clearance rate is over 100%, meaning they are closing more cases faster than new cases are being filed.

“We still aren’t able to push the pedal to the metal on jury trials, so to speak, because we’re continuing to be cautious about summoning jurors, socially distancing and we’ve limited ourselves to two to three trials per week across State and Superior courts,” Stephenson said.

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