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Defendants wait hundreds of days before trial in Chatham County

Published: Jul. 28, 2021 at 4:45 PM EDT
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CHATHAM COUNTY, Ga. (WTOC) - There is a problem legal experts say is plaguing our country right now, and new data shows it’s even more severe in Chatham County.

It’s the backlog of criminal cases. In some instances, innocent people are sitting in jail for hundreds of days before getting their day in court.

When the coronavirus first hit, emergency orders allowed the courts to put many of these cases on-hold. But the backlog in Chatham County existed well before COVID. People familiar with the issue say it’s unfair to victims, the accused, and that it’s costing taxpayers a lot of money.

Right now, 59 pre-trial detainees have been in the Chatham County jail awaiting trial for more than 1,000 days. That’s according to newly-elected Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones.

A June report from her office shows county taxpayers spend, on average, $2,553,870 a month, housing pre-trial inmates. It’s a problem newly-elected county commissioner Aaron Whitely says - should have been addressed years ago.

“That’s just nuts to me. Millions of dollars!” he said.

Jones said, it’s avoidable.

“Most taxpayers don’t know that a) we’re spending that much, and b) we’re not any safer because of our spend,” she said.

Jones estimates the backlog to be well-over 10,000 criminal cases. Not all those people are sitting in jail. But Jones says with the jail at near-capacity, the county can’t afford to go on like this. She said many inmates pose little threat to society and are only in jail because they can’t afford their bond, some as low as a couple hundred dollars.

The District Attorney’s office has the power to throw such cases out. But Jones said, they need help getting to all of them. She’s asking county commissioners to fund four new Assistant D.A. positions - a $280,000 request.

“We need four prosecutors and four bodies to be making these judgements about cases and finding ways to dispose of cases where they can,” she said.

However, Commissioner Whitely doesn’t think the District Attorney’s office needs those four new permanent positions.

“I do understand the need to address this backlog,” Whitely said. “But it’s a little painful for me to try and bring on four positions that we now have to fund for now on… forever!”

Eastern Circuit Public Defender Todd Martin is also skeptical about Jones’ request.

“One of the easiest ways to lower mass incarceration is not more prosecutors, it’s to quit prosecuting so many cases,” he said.

Jones insists she also wants to prosecute fewer cases and said the hires would speed-up the process and save taxpayers a lot of money. Jones added she feels it’s time Chatham County, takes a new approach to crime.

“Why are we more willing to finance the problem than we are to invest in the solution?”

It’s important to note the county passed its 2022 budget last week without the permanent assistant DA positions. Jones hopes the board of commissioners will reconsider. Whitely said they may do that, but first he said the focus should be around approving the positions temporarily. They’d use temporary funds from American Rescue Plan for that. The deadline for the county to ask for that is at the end of next month.

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