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Repeat offenders, extreme case backlogs and limited court time all impact the way local criminal cases are handled, and each was up for debate May 21 during a forum for two candidates running for the 6th Circuit solicitor’s seat.
Held at Mike Williams Builders, 1351 Charlotte Highway (U.S. 521), the hour-long Republican Solicitor’s Candidate Forum featured a debate between primary candidates Tom Holland and Randy Newman.
The forum was sponsored by the Lancaster County Republican Party.
Holland, a Lancaster attorney with the Law Offices of Thomas W. Holland, previously worked as an assistant solicitor in the 16th Circuit and assistant solicitor and special assistant U.S. Attorney in the 6th Circuit. In 2006, he joined the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office as its general counsel.
Newman is also a Lancaster attorney, who serves as an assistant solicitor for the 6th Circuit. He joined the office in 2010, first as an intern and later as a law clerk. He is now assigned to felony cases for the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office, Lancaster Police Department, S.C. Highway Patrol and the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice.
Both are running for the seat of retiring 6th Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield. The 6th Judicial Circuit includes Chester, Fairfield and Lancaster counties.
Listening intently during the forum was a crowd of almost 50 people, including Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile and Lancaster County Councilman Brian Carnes.
During their opening statements, each candidate explained why he is the man for the job.
Holland said he has the perfect combination of skill and experience.
“Being solicitor is different than most other elected positions. You need a skill set. You have to be able to try cases, negotiate, get people to give you money who don’t want to give you money, like County Council,” Holland said.
He told the crowd that though the job would be difficult, it’s his calling.
“I’m not doing this as a stepping stone. I’m doing it to fix the system,” he said.
For Newman, becoming solicitor is important because he has a “vested interest in making (Lancaster County) a safe place to live and a safe place to work.”
“I’m very passionate about the work we do and I want to see it done fairly,” Newman said.
If elected, he wants to institute a four-part strategy, which includes reducing the 6th Circuit’s case backlog, strengthening the relationship between the solicitor and law enforcement, focusing on repeat offenders and advocating for alternative courts for minor crimes.
The candidates then took turns answering a list of seven questions developed by local law enforcement officers.
The first question asked if either candidate plans to reduce dismissals and improve prosecution for people arrested on drug or weapon charges, both of which are prevalent within the county.
Newman said he understands how local law enforcement officers feel when cases they work on are dismissed.
“And I know it looks like we have a lot of dismissed cases, but we actually have a high conviction rate here,” he said. “I know that guns and drugs are the root of our problems.”
Holland said the only way to correct the issue is to put some “fear back in the system” by following through on stiff penalties for certain drug charges and letting that serve as an deterrent to others. One example he used was for the solicitor’s office to make good use of three-strike laws, especially if a person is arrested for having drugs near a school.
“We need to teach the ones coming up behind them not to do it (commit crimes),” he said.
When asked if increasing the number of solicitors and judges could help reduce the 6th Circuit’s large backlog of criminal cases, both offered alternative solutions.
The problem, Holland told the crowd, is not a lack of personnel, but using available court time in an efficient way. He referenced his years working with Barfield at the solicitor’s office.
“Me and Doug Barfield moved as many cases as five attorneys do now,” he said. “Experience is what matters. I don’t need to hire more people. I need to hire more experienced people to help move it along.”
Newman also said he has no plans to hire new solicitors and believes the key is getting more weeks of court time added to the 6th Circuit. In response to Holland, he said having an experienced staff isn’t enough.
“I think we do have a very talented, experienced staff. But I also want to look at having a motivated and talented staff, because you can have an experienced staff who are lazy and unmotivated,” Newman said.
Other questions asked the candidates for their action plans on serving justice to victims, ideas for using unused space on the top levels of the county’s new courthouse, and ways to protect the identities of witnesses and confidential informants (CI).
The latter issue revolves around the release of case information following discovery motions, commonly known as Rule 5 in the law enforcement and legal worlds. Many law enforcement officers have become concerned that such motions allow defendants to have access to witness or CI statements, which could harm investigations or place a witness in harm’s way.
As solicitor, Newman said he and his office would try and hold back information until the time of a trial, when possible, if a threat to a witness was discovered. Holland said he would work to keep CI undercover videos from being made available to defendants prior to a trial.
As for the problem of repeat offenders, Holland reiterated his idea of instituting real consequences for criminals, instead of having the justice system serve as a “revolving door.”
“It’s similar to a parent and if you don’t discipline the child or do what you say you’ll do, they (the child) won’t mind the parent,” Holland said.
Newman agreed, though he added that as solicitor he would put a strict time limit on all plea deals to expire after 90 days.
“By the end of that time, they should know if they are going to plead or take their chances at trial,” Newman said.
The primary election is scheduled for June 10. Whoever wins that election will go up against the Democratic challenger, Winnsboro attorney William Frick.
The general election is Nov. 4.
Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416