Slow courts a statewide concern

By Terri Flagg

The state courts ability to process cases in a timely manner has been identified as a priority in two court commissions.

According to Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-90, who chairs the North Carolina Courts Commission, the group became aware that courts throughout the state might be lagging when representatives from several sureties requested a new law that would release their company from their obligation to defendants with cases pending for 36 months or more.

An bill amending the bond law and letting the sureties off the hook on those older cases was filed in March.

A version that no longer contains that language was ratified July 1, but it highlighted what was possibly a larger issue.

“We’re looking at this from the perspective of what can we do. Is there a problem and what can we do,” Stevens said.

The North Carolina Administrative Office of the Court (AOC) provided the commission with data, but it became obvious that record keeping itself was part of the problem.

“Yes you can measure them but are they accurate,” Stevens said, noting persistent challenges in recording data for each case, and inconsistencies between counties in how that data is recorded.

“Different situations reflect vagaries,” she said, for example, a case with a pending probation violation will reflect the file date of the underlying conviction, which has already been disposed, or cases with deferred prosecution or special probation agreements.

“We’re looking to see if it’s a real problem or a perceptual problem.”

Stevens said the courts commission asked the AOC to reach out to the judicial districts and do something about their backlog of cases.

“Durham County is doing a lot of voluntary dismissals, thinking it’s a glitch in the system,” Stevens said.

The power of the district attorney in calendaring cases — or not — is another reason efficiency is important.

“The DA is the one that has complete control,” said Stevens. “It’s up to the DA to say, we’re going to push forward.”

While delaying cases is generally thought to be a defense tactic, in North Carolina, the District Attorney sets the court calendar, with some more recently established oversight from the court.

“North Carolina appears to be closer to the prosecutor control end of that spectrum than most other states, though local docketing plans vary so much that different parts of the state may be at different points on the spectrum,” Jeff Welty, UNC School of Government professor, wrote in an online article.

“We’re trying to spread that authority around,” Stevens said.

By Terri Flagg

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.

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